Sunday, December 10, 2017

Child welfare and sex trafficking: The problem with residential treatment centers for sexually trafficked youth is residential treatment itself

The New York Times published a story Wednesday about how some residential treatment centers are having problems “treating” victims of sex trafficking. The problem: the young people keep running away.

The story focuses on two institutions, Pleasantville Cottage School and Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls in Westchester County. According to the story:

People who have worked in child welfare in and around New York City say there is a pipeline from centers like the ones here back to the streets, where children fall prey to the abuse that they were supposed to escape. Over the last 18 months, the state, which oversees residential treatment centers like Hawthorne, stopped sending children to Hawthorne and to the nearby Pleasantville Cottage School. Among the 51 centers statewide, Hawthorne and Pleasantville are the only ones to have faced such severe sanctions over missing children in recent years.

Although not mentioned in the story, both institutions also have had severe problems in the past. For example, a 1990 New York Newsday story found that Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls was
 plagued by violence, unchecked sex, and poor supervision. ...  Said one counselor: "They have lost sight that the program is no longer safe to kids.  It's outrageous."

The “dilemma” that overlooks the obvious

Wednesday’s Times story goes on to discuss the supposed dilemma: They can’t “treat” people who keep running away, but if you make it harder for young people to run then the places become more like jails – and people who have been victims of sex trafficking shouldn’t be treated like criminals.

Hawthorne-Cedar Knolls opted to go the jail route. They’ve added security cameras, new lighting and “installed a six foot high fence that stretches 200 feet through trees and bush.” The institution may have been prodded by the fact that the Westchester County town where it is located started imposing a $250 fee for every call about a missing child.

And, of course, the institutions say the solution is to give them more money for programs that “engage” the residents – because the more than $400 per day per child they already get clearly isn’t enough.

But once again, the institutions and their supporters overlook the obvious: The solution to the problems of institutionalizing children is to stop institutionalizing children.

There is overwhelming evidence that residential treatment is a failure.  Even the former head of one of their own trade associations was forced to admit that  they lack “good research” showing
residential treatment’s effectiveness and “we find it hard to demonstrate success...”

There is nothing a residential treatment center can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound services – in which an intensive array of services are provided to young people in their own homes or in foster homes.

That’s what the Westchester Journal News found in 2009 when the failures of institutions in Westchester prompted the newspaper to take a long, hard look at institutionalization, and at better alternatives.  Unfortunately those excellent stories no longer are available online, but I’ve highlighted some of their findings here.

And if anyone still doesn’t believe Wraparound is a better option, even in the toughest cases, have a look at this video from Karl Dennis, who pioneered that approach.

The fundamental failure of institutionalization

If anything, sexually trafficked youth appear to be a particularly poor choice for institutionalization.  It is a classic example of the fundamental failure of institutionalization - the idea that taking children who have endured severe trauma and putting them all together in one place at precisely the age when they are most vulnerable to peer pressure somehow is a good idea.

It should be obvious that this approach would lead to precisely the pipeline referred to in the Times story. Indeed, what the Times found in the Westchester institutions, and worse, has been the pattern all over the country.

The Times story also says this, citing the head of the agency that oversees the Westchester RTCs:

The majority of the children return to their homes or are sent to a foster home or other setting closer to their families in less than a year 

That is another indication that, had they used Wraparound, the chances are excellent that the children need never have been institutionalized in the first place.

The headline on the Times story is: “How Do You Care for Sex-Trafficking Victims if You Can’t Hold On to Them?”

And the answer is obvious: You place them with people they want to hold on to – in other words, a family.