South Carolina sheriff’s program says it’s helping at-risk youth; experts call it child abuse
“Sheriff’s deputies pushed them against jail-yard fences and shoved them to the ground. They yelled and cursed within inches of their faces. They forced them to run for long periods, ignoring pleas for breaks, until some vomited. Receiving this treatment: Kids and teens—one was 8 years old,” reported Tracy Kimball and Ames Alexander for the Charlotte Observer last week. “None of the children were in custody for breaking the law. But their unruly behavior had troubled parents, who had asked deputies to teach them a tough lesson.” Since its inception in 2013, hundreds of boys and girls have been sent to the jail program in South Carolina called Project S.T.O.R.M., designed to scare at-risk kids into better behavior. Six experts who viewed video of the program all criticized the program, and five called it child abuse. “It is physical abuse,” said Kenneth Dodge, a child psychologist. “This tactic would be called torture if the prisoner were a member of the Taliban.” [Tracy Kimball and Ames Alexander / Charlotte Observer]
The sheriff’s officials say they have two goals in Project S.T.O.R.M.: Break the kids down physically and mentally, then build them back up. On a 91-degree afternoon in June, eight boys gathered, were handcuffed, driven to the jail, and led to a fenced-in yard where they were forced to do boot camp-like activities. Deputies pushed some against fences when they stopped for a break or started to cry. One 12-year-old appeared dazed and cried as he ran around the yard carrying an orange traffic cone above his head. Then he fell to the ground. The deputy grabbed the limp boy, pushed him against the fence, and told him to quit “faking.” Another boy, 11, appeared to have urinated in his pants. [Tracy Kimball and Matt Walsh / Charlotte Observer]
Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, who created the program, says it is justified by its mission of deterring youths from a path that could lead to prison. But many studies have found that such programs simply don’t work, and they may actually increase crime among young people. The U.S. Department of Justice does not support the programs. Criminal justice researcher Anthony Petrosino has analyzed numerous studies and said “the evidence is that it could be more harmful than good.” [Tracy Kimball and Ames Alexander / Charlotte Observer]
Programs aimed at frightening youths away from criminal behavior proliferated nationally after the 1978 documentary “Scared Straight!” They waned after academic studies found they were ineffective, but more cropped up following the 2011 launch of A&E’s “Beyond Scared Straight” series. Most are run by local law enforcement agencies and are not regulated by state or federal government. [Tracy Kimball and Ames Alexander / Charlotte Observer] But, from her experience as a public defender, this writer can say that if parents––especially those in overpoliced areas––treated their children the way these law enforcement officers do, the officers would arrest the parents, and charge them with child abuse.
The good news is that child abuse is not the only option for young people looking to chart a different course. There are various models that are far more promising. Those models tend to have far less contact with law enforcement; it seems that once police become convinced that a person is a danger to the community, even if they have not been arrested, officers are not disposed to treat the person with the care that a social worker or other community member might.
One model, initially called CeaseFire and now called Cure Violence, takes a public health view of gun violence. Gary Slutkin, an infectious disease physician with experience fighting HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa, moved to Chicago in the late 1990s and began to analyze the challenge of gun violence using a public health lens. He noted that, like a blood-borne pathogen, violence is predictable, and it spreads person-to-person. Slutkin started a program that collaborates with trusted community members, many of whom are former gang members, to act as mediators at the “epicenter of violent behavior.” These “interrupters” work to “move out of judgment [and] into understanding,” much like a public health official or doctor in an emergency room. Cure Violence has now been implemented in more than 20 cities across the country. One evaluation of eight such communities, conducted in 2007 by Northwestern University, found reductions in shootings and killings between 41 and 73 percent, and a complete elimination of retaliation killings in five of the eight neighborhoods. [Sophia Kecskes / Yale Global Health Review]
Another promising model is Roca, which describes itself as “an evidence-based and data-driven intervention model” that is designed to serve high-risk young people “who are not yet ready, willing, or able to change.” Instead of a two-day bootcamp, Roca takes a long view, offering two years of intensive services followed by two years of follow-up. The program started in Massachusetts and recently expanded to Baltimore. “We’re just at the beginning of a long road,” said Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder. “As we get to know them, we find young people who are tired and want something else.” Roca’s data show that it is usually 15 to 18 months before the participants show up consistently, and when they do, Roca helps them stay out of jail and in jobs. [Yvonne Wenger and Lillian Reed / Baltimore Sun]
In New York, The Animation Project teaches young people how to create professional level 3-D animation with the same software used to create “Toy Story” and Grand Theft Auto. The youth participants also learn storyboard development and scriptwriting, with which they are encouraged to express themes from their lives. “It is a therapeutic and skills-based program,” said founder Brian Austin, who is both a professional animator and a licensed therapist. Students work with at least one trained animator and one therapist, coming up with a story idea and then turning it into a video. Many of the students become quite skilled, says Austin. “With these skills, they’ll never ask where you went to school; they’ll just be like, show me your work.” [Brooklyn Reader]