Tuesday September 18, 2012
Handling juvenile delinquents
By GRACE CHEN
How does a guardian handle tens or hundreds of juvenile delinquents or children from challenged backgrounds? Here are insights from three individuals whose job is to lead these youths back on the right path.
AS acting superintendent of the United States’ Illinois Youth Center Kewanee, an all-boy facility for juvenile sex offenders and the severely mentally ill, Dr Jeff Sim is often asked: “How did they end up there?”
It is a question that the clinical psychologist, also an assistant professor of the psychology department of Western Illinois University, is reluctant to answer as he feels it will spread more prejudice than offer solutions for the 240 boys, aged 14 to 20, under his care.
Children do not become criminals by themselves. An unstable home, poverty and peer pressure account for 95% of the main causes of juvenile delinquency, notes the 42-year-old Dr Sim, who has been studying adolescence issues since 1995.
“Many of the residents are street children raised by gang members. When they came to the facility, they would have arrived at the last line of defence where they are likely to stay for two to seven years, depending on the severity of their crimes. If we do not succeed in turning them around, then we will have failed in our duty,” says the US-based Penangite, who was recently in Kuala Lumpur to conduct a seminar, Understanding Anti-Social And Aggressive Adolescents And Juvenile Sex Offenders, at HELP University for the Malaysian Child Resource Institute.
In March, Dr Sim, who joined the facility in 2004, embarked on a pilot project involving 18 of the centre’s most aggressive boys – the rebels and bullies responsible for assaults and fights. The idea is to put them under close observation and reward good behaviour through the awarding of privileges by way of accumulated goodie points.
Specifically, Dr Sim and his team looked at the antecedent of events that led to their anti-social behaviour. The focus was on the consequences of the poor choices they made and on social skills training that was lacking among the youths. Unlike previously when there was less chance for them to process their anger and frustrations, the present programme encourages these kids to talk and deal with their thoughts and behaviour.
Points are given for positive behaviour. For instance, if the guy takes his shower (you would be surprised to find that there are youths who go for days without a bath!), tidies his room, attends school without incidents or participates in group therapy sessions.
Security staff, teachers, therapists, clinical counsellors and healthcare personnel play a role in monitoring and awarding points to the young people. These points are then added up each week and posted on the housing unit for viewing.
The point system has three grades, A, B and C, each featuring different privileges and rewards. While Grade A entitles the youths to more time and frequency watching movies or TV out of their rooms, Grade C means reduced recreation time or no TV or movies.
“When my team and I proposed this, a majority of the staff thought it was a waste of resources. The general opinion was that these delinquents did not deserve to be treated well for all the grief they had caused their victims and their families.
“But I believe that any system that invests in young lives will work for the better. Unfortunately, there’s the other mindset that is for punitive action, which is clearly not working,” says Dr Sim.
Since its inception in 2001, the facility has seen a return rate of offenders at between 70% and 80%. But Dr Sim is well aware that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
“Each youth is unique and therefore requires treatment tailored to their specific needs. While some youths respond to negative reinforcement, others do so when it’s applied in a more positive way. We have to take into consideration their upbringing, which may include past experiences of brain trauma, physical or emotional abuse, and neglect,” he explains.
So far Dr Sim has observed that the assaults and fights that take place at the centre have decreased. From five or six reports that he used to get a week, it’s now down to one every other week – an indication that the system that honours good behaviour is working.
In Malaysia, as of June, there were 2,500 juvenile delinquents serving time in Malaysian prisons, a majority of them for minor offences, according to Darussalam Budin, head of treatment and rehabilitation and assistant director of prisoner management with the Prisons Department.
Drawing from his experience as a former director of the Henry Gurney Prisoners School in Telok Mas, Malacca, the 53-year-old is all for mind remodelling through the available educational channels.
“Within the prison system is the chance for the juvenile to pursue an education to the highest level,” says Darussalam.
The official speaks with pride of the Government’s in-prison Integrity Schools for juvenile offenders. Launched in 2004, the six schools are located in Kajang (Selangor), Kluang (Johor), Marang (Terengganu), Sungai Petani (Kedah), Kota Kinabalu (Sabah) and Kuching (Sarawak). The programme also offers sports and co-curricular activities, which, according to Darussalam, will easily occupy a young inmate’s time from 7am to 6pm before they return to the dormitory.
“We aim to arm these young people with the knowledge and skills to compete with the outside world. But at the same time we are truthful with them regarding the anticipated social stigma. We drum into them the necessity to learn to stand on their own feet and take the entrepreneurial path if they are unable to find employment upon discharge,” says Darussalam.
It’s good to note that the effort has thus far culminated in 12 young inmates from Kajang Prison pursuing higher education in business management, law, Islamic studies, information technology, pre-school education and multimedia communication through programmes managed by the Open University Malaysia and the Association of Business Executives.
But as far back as 25 years ago when Darussalam was at Henry Gurney, on which the present prison education system is modelled, he had made it compulsory for juvenile delinquents serving time to follow the national school syllabus. In addition, there were vocational programmes offering courses from piping to automobile repairs.
As to how he handled issues like truancy among the 350 boys aged from 16 to 21 then, he simply kept them in their dorms – without television.
“You must understand that for a young person freedom is everything. In the dorm, they are totally confined within four walls. But at school, they get to be with their friends and play games. So if you were in their shoes, which option would you choose?” smiles Darussalam.
Koh Kok Kiong, 66, the chief administrator of Pure Life Society, a children’s home in Jalan Puchong, Kuala Lumpur, places trust as the main criterion when managing troubled youth.
A former instructor with the National Service programme, Koh handled up to 40 children, a job that entailed dealing with the rebels in the group. Not for him the traditional method of military drills and punishment but to find out the root causes of their behaviour.
“I’d found teenagers as young as 19 suffering from depression. Some of them were working in bars and had been left to fend for themselves,” reveals Koh, who is now responsible for some 60 children in Pure Life.
One of the things he learned during his NS stint was to never turn a child away. Troubled children, he notes, are most in need of attention as they have no one to turn to. “They yearn to have a listening ear,” he adds.
It is during these personal sessions that he gives them direction and advice, offering them hope and assuring them that they are no different from other children.
“At such times, life’s lessons like mutual respect, integrity and responsibility will have a surer way of hitting home,” he says.
Knowing a young offender’s past is crucial to the study and planning of his progress, says Darussalam.
When he was at Henry Gurney, warders kept a close watch on the boys, and during assembly he would scrutinise the kids’ body language. A silent character might mean that he was being bullied while an aggressive lad could spell trouble. Swift action, such as sending the young person to a counsellor or a quick word with the warden, was some of the early measures taken.
“It’s not easy,” says Koh. “At times, you might blow your top. But at the end of the day, we have to remember to lead by example. That is why the staff must not quarrel among themselves or raise their voices in front of the children. If you do this, then the children could turn around and say: ‘What’s wrong? You also do it.’ That will dent your credibility.”