Columns 2006

Kids in locked facilities

In an ideal world, I’d be an effortless size four while eating my weight in carbs daily.  My birds would clean their own messes and my dog would never grow old.  People would not use the name of a god they claim is loving and merciful as an excuse to torture and kill everyone who disagrees with them.  And kids would all be raised by Ozzie and Harriet in a neat little suburb where their worse problem would be the occasional pimple.

But we don’t live in that ideal world.  I am nowhere near a size four and my birds still expect me to change the paper on the bottom of their cages. My dog continues his inevitable journey towards the Rainbow Bridge and there seems to be no end of people willing to kill to prove their god is more merciful than your god. Perhaps most sad, kids are still being raised in awful, awful homes where the level of violence and abuse is something most of us cannot begin to imagine.

This is why we need a facility for our kids in this state where the doors can be locked to protect them from themselves. Because as a society we simply are not willing to pay the cost of preventing these kids from reaching that point. “ This is why we need a facility for our kids in this state where the doors can be locked to protect them from themselves. Because as a society we simply are not willing to pay the cost of preventing these kids from reaching that point.

It’s not just the cost in dollars to build a system of support and counseling that would allow them to stay in their communities. We are also not willing to interfere in a family’s life except under the direst of circumstances. And that means for a lot of kids help comes too late.

All hurt children should be handled through the least restrictive method available that protects them.  But children who have been victims already, children who are so damaged that they continue to be victims waiting to happen, children whose brains were wired improperly before birth because of mom’s drinking – these kids often need to be protected from their own worse impulses while we try to fix what is so terribly wrong in their heads.

When you come out of a home full of abuse, you have a lot of work to do if you ever hope to be healthy.  But that work is so deeply emotional, and wrapped up so closely with our whole sense of our identity, that it can be an extremely painful process. When that pain hits some kids, when they finally reach the level where they have to look at some pretty ugly truths about their lives and their families, running is simply the easier option. And when these kids run, they are at terrible risk because they are more likely than not going to put themselves in harm’s way.

Whether it’s a teenage girl running from foster care who jumps into the first car that stops to pick her up or a boy who sees an idling van being gassed that’s ripe for the plucking, these kids are a danger to themselves.  Until you’ve spent a few days wondering where a kid is, whom he’s with, what he’s doing or what is being done to him because he’s on the run, you don’t know how grateful you can be for the simple solution of a facility that can lock its doors and keep the child safe.

I’ve heard all the arguments about over medicating these kids and there is no doubt that situations like that can occur.  To me, this simply means we make sure we closely regulate these types of facilities, not that we stop building them.

I’ve had kids on my GAL caseload from the North Slope placed in facilities from Alabama to Utah to Texas because we have no place for them here.  Before they were sent out, we tried every other option – group homes, foster homes, hospitals.  But the bottom line was that if the kid wanted to run, the kid ran. And a kid like that on the run is a tragedy waiting to happen.

Someday we will find a way to handle moms who drink while pregnant so that their children are not born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder. We will find a way to remove kids immediately from homes in which they are physically, emotionally and mentally abused.  We will create a system where society’s throwaway kids are treasured from birth and no child feels worthless. 

Until that time happens, we need to care for the victims of our current system, the kids who didn’t get out in time, the kids who were damaged before they were even born, the kids whose parents think they are convenient punching bags and that society has no right to interfere with how they handle their family life.  We need group homes, we need foster homes, we need community counseling centers.

And we need locked facilities right here in Alaska where we can protect these children from their own worse impulses while keeping them close to home. It’s the right thing to do.