Haven for troubled children. `Salem' provides rules and rewards

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.''

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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.

If a child destroys a table in a tantrum, he pays for it, earning the money by working at extra Salem jobs in addition to his regular chores. He also forfeits weekend movies or other privileges.

Good behavior and infractions are clearly recorded on weekly charts. Verbal telling isn't enough because these young people ``are used to `forgetting' and are in the habit of finding holes in the system. This can't happen when it's all down in black and white,'' says Cynthia Collea, program director.

Through it all, ``we keep telling them: `We care enough about you that we're not going to let you get away with wrong behavior,' '' Ms. Collea explains.

By offering a family role model that includes raising their own children on the premises, staffers are teaching their Salem charges to carve a normal niche for themselves in society. The majority of kids are bused daily to elementary school in Rumney and to high school in Plymouth. The few who are still in the process of being mainstreamed in a public school are taught in a private school.

Gail Wiltse, guidance counselor at Plymouth Area High School, affirms a high level of communication between Salem and the school. ``They [the staff] know what works for these kids. And we know it works, too, so we follow their lead.''

The days at Salem swing by with time balanced between school and its extra-curricular doings, home chores, activities in which house parents participate, and free time just to think and ``be.''

Only a few telltale signs reveal that these households are ``different'': knives, scissors, and cleaning products are stored under lock and key; night lights and hall lamps are always on during dark hours; groups of kids are never left alone, and some competitive board games are taboo. Poker played with crackers for chips is a current favorite. But it took house parents Trish and Dick Green-Doucet months to bring their charges to this level of competitive play. Now, laughs instead of explosions resound when a straight beats a pair.

To some, the community constitutes an anachronism, a throwback to the '30s and '40s. There are clotheslines ``out back,'' tire swings and picnic tables, dried sunflowers hanging from tree limbs so the birds can feast. And there are no horns or traffic or smog, no central heating, no junk food, and no locked doors.

Salem even exists without ``Dallas'' and ``Miami Vice.'' There's no TV atall.

``They've already been bombarded enough in one lifetime,'' Shill says. They don't need the violence that feeds out of the tube, whether it's fiction or on the news, she explains. They keep in touch with the world via radio or reading. It's less graphic that way.

Salem is still too much of a fledgling to measure long-term results in rehabilitation, but certain yardsticks hint at success. State social workers, who once viewed the program with reservations, channel more and more referrals to Shill's desk. She has just pared down a stack of them to three possible acceptances.

Richard Aubuchon, principal at Plymouth's high school, gives the Salem kids a solid vote of confidence. ``Well behaved. And they fit in well.''

But probably the most heartwarming success tidings come from the ``before'' and ``after'' scenarios of kids who graduate from the Salem program. Ronald (not his real name) is one of these. When he came to Salem five years ago, he hid behind hair that was combed over his eyes and he looked only at his shoes. He spoke almost nothing. That year, he managed to earn only an eighth of a credit in public school.

``I'd yell and escape to my room where I used to spend most of my time. In school I did terrible,'' he says.

But Salem chalked up changes in his life. This spring, Ronald will graduate from Plymouth's high school. He's made the honor roll, has hobbies of weight lifting, horticulture, and life saving. As for his future: this fall he'll be on his way to the University of New Hampshire to study culinary art.

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