Columns 2007

Build the facility

Well, this year made it a clean sweep. Every year since I’ve moved to Anchorage, I’ve spent Christmas Day with a kid on my GAL caseload either at McLaughlin Youth Facility or API.  And let me assure you that if you want to be depressed for the holiday, there is no better way to be sad than to spend your day with kids in places like that.

So I spent part of Christmas Day sitting in a bare room on molded plastic furniture staring across at a 14-year-old boy who, under the best of circumstances, would have had trouble making conversation with me.  Under these circumstances, it was downright painful.

We reached the nadir of the visit when he told me he got an IPod for Christmas as his gift from API. I brightened up at the thought that this would give us something to discuss. So I asked him what kind of music he liked because I’d be more than happy to go find him a CD to play on it.

Yes, you can stop laughing now. I have since been informed that IPods don’t take CDs.  You have to have access to a computer to download music on to it. And, of course, this boy had no access to a computer. The one gift he got, aside from the North Slope magazines I brought him, he couldn’t use.

And so another Christmas passes in his youth and another unhappy memory is created.  Why couldn’t this child be placed elsewhere so he didn’t have to spend his Christmas in API? The answer is simple. His problems are such that there are few if any programs in Alaska that can or will take him.  This means that ultimately he faces deportation to the lower 48 where there are facilities that try to make children like him better.

Alaska made a promise a few years ago to keep these children home if at all possible. Alaska promised it would build a locked facility that was a treatment center so that we could keep them right here in their home state.  What a wonderful concept. 

But the promise remains unfulfilled and this child faces the increasing likelihood that his next Christmas will be spent in an even more foreign environment than this one.

Selling the public on a facility that will lock kids up is not easy. It wouldn’t be a jail or a psychiatric facility, concepts the public can easily grasp. Because the kids that need the physical restraints of a locked facility are sometimes neither criminals nor psychotic, they don’t belong in those facilities. What these kids are, are children who have been so badly damaged for whatever reason that they need to be in a secure facility where they can’t hurt themselves or put themselves in harm’s way. And this means being able to lock doors so they can’t run when the pain of treatment gets too much for them.

Placement in an outside facility only happens after many, many attempts at keeping the child in state in a group or foster home.  But when those placements fail for the umpteenth time, when the child runs and endangers himself, when the child starts inflicting self-harm, when the child starts to threaten harm to others as a way to make their own pain go away, then that child can no longer be safely placed in an unlocked facility.  That’s when we give the kid a ticket to the lower 48.

There is much made about the distance causing problems for families who want to work with the program to re-integrate the child back into their home life. The reality is that with many children, there is no family who wants to or can do that. The distance will make not one whit of difference to them

But oh what a difference it makes to the child. Imagine being so far away from everything familiar and comforting. Imagine spending your days surrounded by strangers who want to get into the most intimate details of your life without ever seeing a face that looks like yours or a friend who understands the life you left behind. For a village kid, these placements can be so initially devastating that it can take four to six months of adjustment before we even reach the beginning of treatment.

I think it’s time we fulfill our promise to these kids and get this facility built. Every year I hear promises about bringing our kids home.  I hope this will finally be the year we actually follow through on that promise and make it more than just words said to shut people like me up.