Haven for troubled children. `Salem' provides rules and rewards
THE stereotype of the tough kid who'll shape up if someone hands him a hug or two just doesn't apply here. At the New England Salem Children's Village, 10 staffers in a family framework strive to salvage the fractured lives of a dozen kids society has labeled ``deeply disturbed.''Skip to next paragraph
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Salem (pronounced SOL-em, from the Hebrew and Arabic words meaning ``peace'') stretches over 137 wooded acres with a backyard that butts against the southern edge of the White Mountains and a front yard that rolls down to Stinson Lake. In addition to two family homes, the settlement includes a barn, a staff house, a garden that stocks the family tables with vegetables most of the year, a craft area with kiln, two horses, two goats, four dogs, and a company of cats.
The young people who come to this remote world range in age from 9 to 19. Ten boys. Two girls. They live, six each, in two ``homey'' houses with two husband-wife teams in the role of ``parents.''
These youngsters carry with them documented case histories of severe physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, and neglect; and they've reeled through foster homes like revolving doors. Their dealings with adults have been disastrous (two-thirds lived with alcoholic parents), and most came convinced their grim world was totally of their own creating.
A few hid their feelings in a secret ``somewhere'' deep within them. Silence and stares, day upon day. Others let their feelings break free in a fireworks of shouts, broken chairs, upturned tables, pummeled doors and walls. All the usual road signs clearly pointed to internment in mental institutions or jail . . . until Salem stepped in.
Salem staffers use none of the devices employed in some institutions -- psychotropic drugs, isolation, straitjackets, or four-point leathers which bind a person's wrists and ankles to a table. Instead, Salem's approach is to give the kids a structured environment wrapped in the warmth of family caring. In a foster home, there's a family setting but no professional staff. In most institutions, professionals are present, but the home atmosphere is missing. Salem combines both.
Founded in 1979, Salem is a nonprofit, nondenominational group home licensed by the state of New Hampshire. Although it operates independently, it shares its philosophy of family life in a rural setting with similar Salem villages in Maryland, North Carolina, West Germany, Israel, Austria, Uganda, and Namibia.
The Salem concept originated with German-born Gottfried Muller, who, after surviving imprisonment during World War II, dedicated his life to humanitarianism. His first Salem Village opened in Bavaria to care for war orphans. Now, at the age of 78, he carries on his work at Stadtsteinach in West Germany.
Each Salem Village raises its own funds, and the budget battle is a constant companion for executive director Marion Shill. Although the state pays a per-diem allowance for each child, staffers must raise an additional $75,000 to $100,000 annually to meet other expenses. ``To work here takes total commitment 24 hours a day,'' explains Ms. Shill, whose own day begins with paperwork at 3 a.m. A native of Scotland, Shill previously worked with battered women in South Africa and came to the US to be at Salem.
She explains that the children come from chaotic backgrounds where punishment was meted out for no logical reason. Now, they need a structured system that provides:
Clear expectations. They're told exactly what is expected of them. The list ranges from showering and table manners to no violence or verbal threats.
Predictability. They can predict with a certainty what will happen if they don't live up to expectations because they've been given both verbal and written guidelines.
Choices. They know the consequences if they break the rules, and the rewards if they don't. The choice is theirs.
Control. They have a measure of control over their own lives because they make choices. No straitjacket is making the choice for them.