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Experiences With Residential Treatment Facilities- Delinquents, Assaults, and Lessons Learned

Jennifer has worked in the human services field since 2009 and will be completing her Masters degree in Forensic Psychology in September.

Two Years of Hypocrisy

I have recently resigned from my position in one of the most prestigious treatment facilities in the nation, a decision that was made for several reasons. But throughout my two-year experience working within this dangerous environment, I have gained valuable insight into the practices and regulations of such facilities. In addition, I have experienced firsthand this country's most popular treatment model for juvenile delinquency in action.

During my first several months of employment at this facility, I possessed such hope and courage for the works that I was about to perform. I strongly desired to help the children and adolescents that were mandated into the program, as most of the residents were court-ordered to the institution for incredible lengths of time. I quickly learned that whereas the vast majority of these individuals were young in age, they were not at all innocent in the offenses that they had committed against the community, their parents, and themselves.

It is important for such knowledge to be shared. Many Americans possess very little information about the inner-workings of residential treatment facilities simply because they have no need of such awarenesses. Fortunately for these people, the plague of crime has not touched their lives.

But it had touched mine, and I was ready and willing to start making a difference. What I did not know, however, was that such a positive intention rarely comes to fruition in such a setting, and that in actuality, those workers with the best intentions are oftentimes the first to suffer.

The Residents

The majority of the clients were mandated by their respective court system due to highly aggressive physical behaviors both inside and outside of their homes. Several had violently assaulted members of the immediate families or caregivers as well as committed some type of crime against members of their extended families. One example of this was an adolescent who assaulted her aunt- her caregiver at the time- and then set fire to her grandfather's furniture. Older residents tended to be gang members, drug dealers, prostitutes, and child molesters, resulting in the crimes that they had been charged with before being committed to the facility. Younger residents were usually victims of abuse and/or neglect and were failing in both the school and community settings due to the inability to cope with such traumas.

In addition to this primary population were the clients that struggled with mental illness. Several residents were schizophrenic, and may others experienced the symptoms of eating disorders on a consistent basis. Exposure to the aggression and violence that often occurred within the households on campus only served to worsen these conditions, and many of these clients were the first to be hospitalized against their wills.

A very small percentage of the clients were sent to this institution because of their parents' rights to custody being terminated. I have witnessed this occurring in situations involving drug usage, prison confinement, neglect, and abuse. This does not happen often; as I have stated before, the vast majority of these individuals were mandated to reside at a facility because of their own wrongdoings or because of uncontrollable mental health concerns.

Unfortunately, some of these individuals were taken advantage of repeatedly by their fellow residents. Sexual assault, physical assault, theft, and many other occurrences happened frequently, and a younger client incapable of defending him or herself was typically the one being victimized. How was this any different than the treatment these children suffered in their home environments? The short answer- it wasn't.


The Physical Damage

Within the first six months of my employment, I had been severely assaulted several times. Despite my working with the second to youngest group of boys on campus, I was often required to attend assistance calls in other residences as part of my training. It was in one of these other houses that I was physically beaten by three teenaged girls while the other staff present were involved in yet another dangerous situation. Because of the physical circumstances of my attack, no other staff member was able to reach me in time and there were no additional staff on campus to aid further. I was beaten by two females from the front, and one from the back; I walked out of that house with a black eye, a badly-bruised nose, a concussion, a dislocated shoulder, and several gashes on my arms due to being scratched.

You may be asking why I allowed myself to sustain such injuries. The reason is, simply put, because I was not allowed to defend myself in a way that would pose danger to the children. This was a fact that had been passed along to me by my employer.

In the younger houses, injuries included concussions (a coworker of mine was beaten in the head with a Wii controller by a 10-year old before I could get to him), bite marks, black eyes, broken noses, and scratches. I still and always will have scars on my legs, arms and hands from the more aggressive residents; the injuries sustained from the children who assaulted staff "just for fun" have long since faded.

The residents often harmed other residents as well. Fights were extremely common. In perhaps one of the most traumatizing confrontations I witness there, a girl weighing about 100 pounds was jumped and beaten by three other girls, each of whom weighed at least 200 pounds. It was brutal, and I couldn't assist her in any way because of the size of her assailants. No matter what she had done, or stolen or said, there was no justification for that type of brutality, but it existed and was demonstrated on several occasions. The residents just did not know how to peacefully resolve their conflicts with one another, and instead almost immediately resorted to violence in order to solve their differences.

The RTF: A Treatment Approach in Question

Unfortunately, residential treatment facilities are mostly ineffective at preventing destructive behaviors and rewiring those who demonstrate the tell-tale signs of juvenile delinquency. Many of the residents that lived at this facility committed suicide, become even more involved with the legal system, or became heavily involved in substance abuse. As a staff member with a background in psychology, it was not at all difficult to see that any improvement made during a resident's time in the program was temporary, especially after they were returned to their home environment.

Hopefully, I have shed some much-needed light on the current issues of residential treatment facilities, including but not limited to: high staff turnover rates due to "burnout", punitive practices and regulations, the pros and cons of a system based on consequences, lack of staff rights, and others. In addition to this, the concept of the residential treatment facility is gradually losing approval as more and more facilities are closing due to allegations of abuse and an inability to maintain appropriate staffing ratios. Since the effectiveness of this treatment model has long been in question, this development seems to be for the best not only for the employees, but for the residents who call these places home.

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For More Information


Jennifer (author) from Pennsylvania on April 24, 2011:

Hello, everyone. Happy Easter and thanks for your comments!

To GeorgiaKevin- thank you for sharing. We obviously have both worked in dangerous environments, but my respect goes out to you for having taught at the same time. Unfortunately, I stopped being able to teach the residents anything simply because I was too busy trying to maintain a safe environment at the same time!

To L.L.- It's interesting that you mentioned "losing good people." When I first became employed by this facility, we lost approximately seven to ten mental health workers all at once. They were all seasoned employees and the loss of them was felt greatly. It's a vicious cycle- people who come in wanting to make a difference, and then leaving because they were not able to. It's a sad field.

To AJ- I am glad that someone had a positive experience in an RTF! I suppose that there is a difference between residing and working in one. I greatly respect your staff for being able to provide a safe and successful environment for you to thrive in. Well done!

To Peter- You explained it in one phrase better than I did in an entire hub- the "loss of hope" explains this scenario all too well.

PETER LUMETTA from KENAI, ALAKSA on April 21, 2011:

Well done and well said. The loss of hope.

AJ76 from Florida on April 21, 2011:

Hi george!

JJ, I am 34 yrs old. I was abused by my parents as a child and as a result I was in a residential home for 3 yrs. I was not a discipline problem and I was often a favorite of the staff. Being in that home was the best thing for me. I learned I was worth something. That I deserved more than I had.

I now have children of my own. My children do not have discipline problems although I do have a 13 yr old. But it is typical teenage issues. JJ, I see the other children and how they behave. The question that comes to my mind when I see these kids is. Where is your mother? Well. sometimes I did meet the mother. They were just as bad as their children. They are horrible examples for their children!

What happened to this generation and even some of my own generation? It scares the shyte out of me!

I am so sorry you had this experience! I wanted to make sure to tell you my story and to tell you that it has helped some people. I have 2 college degrees and 2 wonderful children. If it wasn't for the residential home I would never have learned self worth. I don't think I would have amounted to much at all. Chin up JJ!

L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on April 21, 2011:

It would seem that the residential treatment centers are losing good people such as yourself due to the hazards posed by the residents. With that being so, who will be responsible for the care of these youths? I shudder to consider the possibilities.

Georgiakevin from Central Georgia on April 21, 2011:

What an enlightening & sad post. It was very well written. I am a public school teacher and have been hurt more times than I like to remember. Last year I lost 2 teeth and broke two ribs for the same reason you describe but my environment was not near so bad as what you have experienced. My deepest respect for anyone who has ever worked at a Residential treatment Center or SEBD programs.

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