Ex­perts chal­lenge ef­fec­tive­ness of Ch­ester Co.’s jail-pre­ven­tion pro­gram

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY AMES ALEXAN­DER AND TRACY KIM­BALL aalexan­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com tkim­[email protected]­al­don­line.com

Mis­guided, abu­sive and po­ten­tially harm­ful.

That’s how six ex­perts char­ac­ter­ized a pro­gram in Ch­ester County, S.C., that is de­signed to scare at-risk youths into bet­ter be­hav­ior.

A Rock Hill Her­ald pho­tog­ra­pher ob­served the pro­gram in June 2018 and in Jan­uary, and the Char­lotte Ob­server and Her­ald shared video from those vis­its with the ex­perts.

In the video, the county sher­iff’s deputies who run Project S.T.O.R.M. pro­gram can be seen push­ing and grab­bing chil­dren. The youngest child in the video was 8. Deputies also can be seen yelling in the youths’ faces, curs­ing and ig­nor­ing their cries for breaks dur­ing rig­or­ous out­door work­outs.

Dur­ing the June ses­sion, deputies sur­rounded a boy as they forced him to re­peat­edly flip an over­sized tire. When the teenager paused, a deputy pushed him on top of the tire and yelled: “Ain’t no­body tell you to stop, son!”

Mo­ments later, deputies made the boy squat against the fence, hold­ing a traf­fic cone. The boy, ap­par­ently ex­hausted, low­ered the cone and asked if


he could run laps in­stead. A deputy shoved him into the fence. Then he and an­other deputy got within inches of the boy’s face and yelled.

“You had the God-dern op­por­tu­nity, but you let it go!” one deputy shouted. “Now you sit over here and God-dern suf­fer.”

Dr. Des­mond Run­yan, a pe­di­a­tri­cian who has ex­ten­sively stud­ied child abuse and co-founded a com­pre­hen­sive child abuse cen­ter in Chapel Hill, said he be­lieves such treat­ment is “likely to cre­ate more delin­quents than it helps.”

“If a par­ent did this, there is no ques­tion that I would be mak­ing a re­port to Child Pro­tec­tive Ser­vices,” he wrote in an email to the Ob­server. “I be­lieve that this video doc­u­ments child abuse by these of­fi­cers.”

Ross W. Greene, a child psy­chol­o­gist who taught at Har­vard Univer­sity and au­thored the book “The Ex­plo­sive Child,” said that try­ing to com­pen­sate for de­vel­op­men­tal skills and other un­solved prob­lems by scar­ing a young per­son is the equiv­a­lent of treat­ing heart fail­ure with an­tibi­otics.

“I’d re­fer to it as state­sanc­tioned child abuse,” Greene said.

Michael Teague, a psy­chol­o­gist who was in charge of pro­vid­ing men­tal health treat­ment in North Carolina’s youth pris­ons in the early 1990s, said the Ch­ester County pro­gram ap­peared to put some youths at risk of phys­i­cal in­jury.

He noted how one deputy grabbed be­neath a teen’s throat and jerked him to his feet, and how an­other yanked the legs out from un­der­neath an over­weight child, caus­ing him to fall on his but­tocks.

“In my sev­eral years with the North Carolina Youth Devel­op­ment Cen­ters, none of the above ques­tion­able be­hav­iors would be tol­er­ated,” he wrote in an email.

“Do we want to tear chil­dren down?” Teague asked. “This does not seem to be a com­po­nent of any ac­cept­able child in­struc­tion and dis­ci­pline.”

New York child psy­chi­a­trist Roy Lu­bit said the be­hav­ior of the deputies makes them “ter­ri­ble role mod­els.”

“The kids are be­ing shown that it is OK to abuse other peo­ple,” Lu­bit said.

Ken­neth Dodge, a child psy­chol­o­gist who for­merly headed Duke Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Child and Fam­ily Pol­icy, said the Scared Straight-style ap­proach is based on the mis­taken as­sump­tion that delin­quent be­hav­ior is a mat­ter of choice.

“It’s not a mat­ter of choice. It’s a mat­ter of skills, so­cial com­pe­tence to get through the day,” Dodge said. “You don’t will that. You have to learn it.”

Ch­ester County Sher­iff Alex Un­der­wood dis­putes that his pro­gram is harm­ful or abu­sive. He said he puts more stock in what he hears from the par­ents of youths in the pro­gram than what psy­chol­o­gists say. And he said he has never heard a neg­a­tive re­sponse from par­ents.

“The mis­sion is to keep the kids from go­ing to prison,” Un­der­wood said. “And if ( psy­chol­o­gists) want to say it’s abuse, then they need to do a study on the prison sys­tem it­self and see what in­mates do to youth when they come into the sys­tem. To see how they’re ex­ploited.”

An­thony Pet­rosino, direc­tor of the WestEd Jus­tice and Pre­ven­tion Re­search Cen­ter in San

Fran­cisco, said such pro­grams ap­peal to the com­mon be­lief that get­ting tough with trou­bled kids will help straighten them out.

“I sus­pect the sher­iff is try­ing to do the right thing,” he said. “But there are other things they could do that might be more ef­fec­tive and less harm­ful.”


Many ex­perts in­ter­viewed by the Ob­server and the Her­ald also pointed to re­search show­ing that Scared-Straight­style pro­grams like Ch­ester County’s tend to be in­ef­fec­tive, if not harm­ful.

Tip Frank, a Rock Hill child psy­chol­o­gist, said that such pro­grams could make mat­ters worse for youths who al­ready suf­fer from men­tal or emo­tional prob­lems.

“It could re­ally set some­one back,” said Frank, who has writ­ten books on psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems in chil­dren.

James Finck­e­nauer, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Rut­gers Univer­sity’s School of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, has for years stud­ied prison aware­ness pro­grams. He said that for chil­dren as young as 8, such pro­grams amount to “men­tal bru­tal­ity, men­tal abuse.”

Naomi Smoot, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at the Coali­tion for Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice, said prison aware­ness pro­grams could cause fur­ther trauma for at-risk chil­dren.

“Of­ten young peo­ple that have come in con­tact with the jus­tice sys­tem have ex­pe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple pre­vi­ous trau­mas and when we put folks into sit­u­a­tions where we are try­ing to frighten them into do­ing what we think they should be do­ing, that ex­poses them to fur­ther trauma,” Smoot said. “There is no ev­i­dence that shows it works, ac­tu­ally quite the con­trary.”

Arnold Shapiro, the re­tired tele­vi­sion pro­ducer who cre­ated the 1978 doc­u­men­tary “Scared Straight!” and, later, “Beyond Scared Straight,” would not grant the Ob­server’s re­quest for an in­ter­view. But in an email to the news­pa­per, he crit­i­cized the aca­demic stud­ies of Scared Straight pro­grams, say­ing that none fol­lowed the same youths over any sig­nif­i­cant pe­riod of time.

Af­ter pro­duc­ing “Scared Straight!,” Shapiro fol­lowed up 20 years later to see what be­came of the 17 teens. One had died of a drug over­dose. One was in prison. One had done time for a book­mak­ing scheme. And 13 of the 17 had “turned their lives around, ” Shapiro wrote.

“And many of them at­trib­uted the de­ter­rence pro­gram they ex­pe­ri­enced as the rea­son and mo­ti­va­tion for chang­ing,” Shapiro wrote.

But Pet­rosino, the crim­i­nal jus­tice re­searcher, said that Shapiro’s fol­low-up of youth in Scared Straight would not be viewed as cred­i­ble ev­i­dence in the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity be­cause he did not ex­am­ine a valid com­par­i­son group.

Shapiro con­tended most of the stud­ies ques­tion­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of Scared Straight pro­grams were done many years ago, be­fore coun­sel­ing was in­tro­duced as a com­po­nent in such pro­grams.

“Fi­nally, in fol­low­ing the hun­dreds of kids we fol­lowed on our se­ries, we never found one case where par­tic­i­pat­ing in the pro­gram made them worse or harmed them,” Shapiro wrote.

TRACY KIM­BALL tkim­[email protected]­al­don­line.com

A Ch­ester County Sher­iff’s deputy makes a child do ex­er­cises dur­ing a Project S.T.O.R.M. ses­sion in Jan­uary.

Michael Teague

Ken­neth Dodge

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