Juvenile Wilderness Programs

Case Management – CJ445-01

The American journalist and political commentator, Nicholas Kristof, once said that “the wilderness is healing, a therapy for the soul,” (Kristof, 2017) which, I feel, perfectly explains the objectives of wilderness programs for juveniles. Unlike any other innovative treatment strategy that is currently used by the juvenile justice system, wilderness programs are non-punitive, so they modify behavior by exposing adolescents to nature not through institutionalization, harsh punishment, or forcing them to check in with a probation officer periodically. The reader might be wondering “What’s so special about being exposed to the elements that might give a parent hope of regaining control over their unruly child?” I’ll tell you; the secret to successfully rehabilitating a teen lies in removing them from all of the various distractions in their life and putting them in situations where they feel safe because the toxic people in their lives cannot hurt them.

Social media, media, cell phones, computers, and other innovative technologies are all wonderful, useful tools that can improve the quality of our lives and entertain us, but are these tools really helping our children? It is easier than ever before in history to keep in touch, know what another person is up to, and discover intimate details about another person with just a few keystrokes and clicks of the mouse; this is both a blessing and a curse. Children are not only easily distractible, but naïve and unknowingly make themselves vulnerable to predators. (Firestone, 2017) Additionally, with so many people becoming increasingly addicted to their “screens” these days, family activities and communication/interaction in general are no longer prioritized; busy parents trying to survive the rat race unintentionally place bonding with their children on the back burner. Before parents know it, they have a moody, hormonal stranger living in their home and they have no idea that their child is struggling or getting into trouble until after it is too late.

Technology is also slowly making children less intelligent, less creative, and less imaginative. Why would they want to play dress up or pretend to be one of their role models if they could just watch them on television or see them on a YouTube video? Technology also makes children reliant. Many children these days have no idea how to use a manual can opener, change a tire, or prepare a meal for themselves because they have a delivery service, roadside assistance on speed dial, or microwave close by. Most children do not how to solve their own problems, think creatively, or invent something that will improve someone else’s life. Why put in the work of thinking, planning, or making an effort when Google has all of the information that they could ever possibly need? (Taylor, 2012)

Many children are physically, sexually, emotionally, and spiritually abused and/or neglected on a daily basis in our country, and that can influence their emotional responses to stress or controversy. The younger the child, the less vocabulary they have to articulate that they are hurting. Instead, they act out as a cry for help. Bullying, sneaking out, skipping school, disregarding curfew, breaking the rules, doing drugs, drinking alcohol, destroying property, stealing…etc. are all ways that a child might be secretly crying out for help or acknowledgement. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “bad kids,” they are just misguided or lonely kids. (Moore, 2006) Removing a child from a toxic environment such as an abusive home, a bad neighborhood, or gang violence (and all of the distractions and stressors associated with that environment) offers the child the chance to heal properly, regain their composure, and stand up for themselves when necessary. Removing the child from harm and taking them to areas of wide-open space where they are acknowledged by a caring adult and included as a member of a team is the foundation of wilderness programs.

The typical candidate for a wilderness program would be a 13-17-year-old boy or girl who has been categorized as “at-risk” because they have either made or are at a higher risk for making poor life decisions. This could be influenced by any number of environmental, social, family, and behavioral factors. Some examples of making poor life decisions include using and/or abusing substances, involvement in a gang, violence, depression, promiscuous behavior, antisocial behavior and poor academic performance. (Smith, 2017) The child’s environment and the individuals that are included in their inner circle pose many risk factors, but so do genetic predisposition to criminal behavior and substance abuse. The child might attend a wilderness program, become successfully rehabilitated, and then return to an environment where criminal behavior is a way of life and means of survival. The risk factors surrounding any treatment program will either be static, where they cannot be changed, (ethnic status, parental status, and sex) or dynamic, that change with the child’s environment, (school motivation, confidence, social skills, and peer relationships.) The five risk factor categories are: individual, family, schooling, community, and peers. Protective factors reduce the probability of harmful effects risk factors may cause. Protective factors such as improved confidence, motivation, independence, hope, resilience, and sustainability (which can be taught during a typical wilderness program) empower at-risk youth with coping skills needed to build positive relationships and avoid consequences. (Merenda & Argueta, 2018)

These residential treatment programs are primitive at best, so participants essentially have no choice but to cooperate and engage with their small groups or teams in order to survive. In addition to learning survival skills and interacting with their peers, participants also interact with clinical staff to discuss and work through issues that they are/were previously struggling with and set personal/interpersonal goals. Licensed behavioral health professionals lead the therapy sessions while other trained staff members teach basic survival skills and give instruction on self-care. Participants attend group therapy sessions on a number of different subjects throughout the program including negative patterns and behaviors, alcohol and drug use, abuse and dependency, family conflict, low self-esteem or self-loathing, self-injury, and managing anger. (psychologytoday.com, 2016) Activities that participants commonly engage in include hiking, preparing campsites, and building fires. Many programs also do family therapy with the families of the participants so that they can support them upon release from the 21 to 28-day long programs. Some programs are longer if the amount of therapy required is more extensive or the poor behaviors are more serious. (Deyer, 2018)

There is a surprising lack of information surrounding the methodology and effectiveness of wilderness programs online which might discourage many parents from pursuing this treatment for their children. Also, each program has different treatment goals, priorities, and operating procedures, so their effectiveness varies. A potential drawback of parents sending their child to a wilderness program is that there are currently programs in only 33/50 states; sending a child to treatment out in the wilderness is stressful enough, but sending them to a treatment program that is in the wilderness in another state might be a source of significant anxiety for many parents.

“I can’t take this anymore. Something’s got to give.” is how Glenda West described her decision to find a treatment program to send her daughter to as she stood in the hospital room staring down at 15-year-old unconscious Irina. When Glenda gave her statement to the police about what had happened earlier that day, the police asked her if she would like to press charges against Irina for stealing her van and driving to her friend’s house. Glenda said “no” reluctantly, but part of her had really wanted to say “yes.” Irina had been a constant source of anguish and heartache to Glenda since she and her ex-husband Scott had adopted her from Russia when she was 7 years old. Irina was so sweet and loving throughout the year-long adoption process and even while they were going through court proceedings to make the adoption official. Almost as soon as Irina got to the United States, she changed. She stayed in her room, refused to bond with her new family, and would scream at Glenda in Russian if she so much as knocked on the door. She already loved this little girl despite her behavior and made it her mission to gain her trust.

Over the next few years, Irina began to calm down, appeared to be adapting to her new life fairly well, and began to tell Glenda and Scott about her past when she began to speak English. Glenda discovered that Irina’s mother had a substance abuse problem throughout her pregnancy and until her death by overdose when Irina was 5. Her father was a member of the KGB and she did not see him very much.

Scott and Irina became very close; too close, if you asked Glenda. At first it seemed harmless and Glenda was just relieved that Irina was finally beginning to accept them as her adoptive parents. The way Scott treated Irina, the way he undermined Glenda’s authority in front of Irina, and his extreme lack of boundaries became a constant argument between Scott and Glenda. Finally, Scott took off and Glenda didn’t hear from him for several years. After Scott left, Irina’s behavior returned to what it was when she first arrived in the United States, except now, she was an adolescent who spoke English. She began sneaking out, pathologically lying, skipping school, doing drugs, and becoming way too familiar with older boys.

Glenda had a suspicion that Irina was pregnant and when the EMT’s brought her into the Emergency Room, they confirmed that she had indeed been pregnant before the accident made her miscarry. In one fell swoop, she had lost a grandchild, her vehicle was totaled, and, worst of all, she felt like she had lost her daughter. She had no idea what to do, she had no family members close by, and she could not reach Scott to consult him about their daughter. She pulled out her phone and discovered a program called Shady Pines in upstate New York that was ideal for adolescent girls, especially ones from other countries. She made a few phone calls and discovered that someone had just withdrawn their application and there was a slot available for Irina if she could be there by next week. Irina regained consciousness and did her very best to be sweet, pitiful, and apologetic to Glenda so that she would change her mind about Shady Pines. It did not work and after she was discharged from the hospital two days later, Glenda took her (by Uber) straight home to begin packing her things for the treatment program. On Monday morning at 7AM, Glenda and Irina boarded a flight bound for New York because Glenda did not trust her daughter to fly unaccompanied. By that evening, Irina was checked in at Shady Pines and for the first time in over 7 years, Glenda got a full night’s sleep.

Irina was initially a problem at Shady Pines. On the second day, she punched another girl in the face before trying to run away after dinner. Her counselor, David, caught her just as she was about make it over the fence and somehow convinced her to come talk to him. She had never known her biological father and she had just been manipulating her adoptive father, Scott, to get out of trouble and make Glenda mad; for the first time in her life, she felt heard by a man that wasn’t just pretending to listen to her to get into her pants. He asked her opinion, what she needed, what her hopes were, and what she aspired to do with her life. That really got her attention and she decided that this program might be worth sticking around for. David asked her to apologize to the girl that she punched, Sarah, and miraculously, she did.

David had Sarah transferred to his small group and made her Irina’s assigned accountability partner. Before long, Sarah and Irina were very close, and David made them team leaders of the small group. They really rose to the challenge and kept their teams in line when they were given responsibility. The girls looked up to Irina and she grew to care for them as well. It made Irina feel confident and empowered to share her ideas and experiences in small group and people not only agreed with her but also thought that she was smart. By the time the program was complete, Irina was actually sad to go home but knew that she had a lot of people to apologize to. She loved her counselor, David, and her team had grown very close, but it was time to go home and clean up the messes that she had made starting with getting a job to repay her mother for the damages to her vehicle. When Glenda arrived at Shady Pines to pick her daughter up, she was stunned when Irina actually ran to hug her! She had her daughter back and everything from the past no longer mattered.

In my scenario, David, a case manager and counselor at Irina’s camp, played a vital role in a successful rehabilitation. By taking the time to speak with her individually rather than calling security or making her mother come pick her up, he earned her trust and assessed her needs. When he did not allow her to get away with punching Sarah, he taught her a valuable lesson without punitive measures or tough love. Irina learned that her actions have consequences and that behavior like that would not be tolerated, but it was gentle and free from confrontation. Because David did not approach Irina in a “cookie cutter” or “one size fits all” manner and actually got to know her, he immediately recognized her potential for leadership and tailored his approach to meet her unique needs. If he had not had that initial conversation with her or gotten to know her, the outcome may not have been as successful. I feel that this is why wilderness programs have the potential to be more successful than punitive, traditional measures. There are no distractions, nothing is stressing the child out, they have time, and they have the opportunity to do a thorough soul search. Participants have time to explore the beauty of nature and they have the opportunity to explore things like finding forgiveness, improving their self-esteem, and moving forward from traumatic events in the past.