When Gloria arrived in residential treatment, her history was similar to many of the children our agency serves. She was a pre-teen with a history of emotional and physical abuse and neglect. She had failed out of many lower levels of treatment and was in desperate need of intense trauma therapy. Having an attachment disorder as well as several other mental health diagnoses, Gloria displayed the type of behavior common in a child of her background. She was defiant and rude, manipulative and aggressive. Having been the worst kid in most of her placements, that is what she strived for in her placement here.
From the outside looking in, she seemed to deliberately try to annoy everyone around her - staff and peers alike. Her social skills were lacking to say the least. As part of her treatment, she was paired up with a treatment team member who would be her one-on-one. This staff member spent an hour of individual time with Gloria a week. During their first meetings, as they got to know each other better, Gloria's one-on-one helped her style her hair and they talked about appropriate girl stuff. Gloria had never had the experience of having a role model who not only explained things to her but modeled good hygiene and behavior. Soon, Gloria began to emulate these behaviors even when her one-on-one wasn't around. Ideally, these behaviors will stay with her even after she moves on from the program.
Last month, I wrote an article looking at the Scared Straight! Program. The comments I received seemed to have a similar theme: What do we do? Kids are out of control! Many comments alluded to the fact parents should be doing more and I completely agree. Unfortunately, in my experience, I've learned you can't make parents be more responsible. You can't make them do what is right for their children. Even if mom and dad want to, often there are substance abuse or mental health issues that prevent them from doing what is best for their children.
So where does that leave us, as professionals, and as a society? We need to step in and focus on the children and what they need. If we don't they will end up with us anyway. One way that has been successful and has earned the support of most juvenile agencies and police departments is mentoring.
Like with Gloria, adult mentors do more than talk to kids about life. Children learn a lot by observing those around them. They watch how adults interact with each other, how they talk on the phone, how they carry themselves and how they perform tasks. Children who have not had healthy role models need to have what they deem as appropriate adult behavior challenged and modified.
Mentors do this. They carry themselves with an understanding that everything they do will be absorbed and could influence their mentee. Humans grow and learn by watching others. It is a tall order and should never be taken lightly. As a mentor, you have to ask yourself, "Is this behavior something I would like to see my mentee doing?" Many mentorship program clients are at-risk youth and most come from environments with negative influences. Mentors help neutralize this influence and replace it with positive interactions. Children cannot control who their parents are or how they are raised. They are a captive audience to an adult world.
As many of my readers pointed out, we as a society and criminal justice professionals have little control over what parents are providing. Because of this, it is even that much more important that we provide an influence that will help negate the negative. Mentorship programs do just that. As an Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) article points out, mentors provide a caring and responsible adult role model who can make a positive, lasting impression on a child.
Research supports the incredible benefits of mentorship. For example, studies have shown programs:
- improve school attendance and performance
- increase graduation rates
- decrease gang activity and delinquent behaviors
Due to the proven benefits, a myriad of funding opportunities exist, including State Formula Grants, the SafeFutures Initiative and Juvenile Mentoring Program (JUMP) funding. One successful program showing support from funders and law enforcement/criminal justice professionals is the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities League (PALS).
The PALS website describes this exceptional program well.
PALS is a youth crime prevention program that utilizes educational, athletic and recreational activities to create trust and understanding between police officers and youth. It is based on the conviction that young people - if they are reached early enough - can develop strong positive attitudes towards police officers in their journey through life toward the goal of maturity and good citizenship.
PALS began over 60 years ago and now reach more than 2 million youth between 5 and 18 in over 700 cities throughout the United States and the US Virgin Islands. 1,700 facilities exist and finding a chapter (or to start your own chapter) information can be found on the PALS website. In January 2010, Waterloo (IA) Police Department began a chapter and the group meets once a week for activities like ping pong and basketball. The officers also have lunch with their mentees at their school. The group was funded with the help of a grant through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Children need good role models to grown into healthy, caring adults. When adults make the effort to spend time with kids, especially doing activities the child enjoys, the benefits to the child can last a lifetime. Unfortunately, as criminal justice professionals we see many kids growing up without positive adult influence. This doesn't mean we should write them off as just tomorrow's candidates for our jails and prisons. Mentoring allows us to be proactive. Instead of just shaking our heads and bracing for the havoc of the future, we can get involved and make a difference to a child and our community.