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Unlocked-up youth

By Elizabeth A. BrownStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 1988

Penikese Island, Mass.

IN the mixed-up world of juvenile delinquents, George Cadwalader - ex-marine, Vietnam vet, Yale man, father - is a practical idealist. ``We can't change the world,'' he says, ``but hopefully we can make the boys better equipped to live in the world.''

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Mr. Cadwalader runs Penikese Island, a small ``school'' for 14- to 17-year-old boys in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS).

Often likened to an Outward Bound program, the island school is an isolated wilderness without electricity or telephone. But with winds blasting the grassy hills, and waves beating the stony shores, spring is coming to Penikese.

In any other context, this might be Huck Finn gone New England.

The youths - all males - who go to the island boot camp are prepared for six months in minimal living conditions. Most of them are ``property offenders'' - having stolen cars, guns, money. Some are in for assault. Penikese is a middle alternative, less secure than a locked facility, but more restrictive than a community-based program.

Boys learn responsibility

If a caseworker feels that his client would benefit from the rigorous island experience, the youth is screened - and, if he agrees, enrolled.

``We see it as an opportunity for the boys,'' Cadwalader explains, ``although they see it as a hassle.'' Sadly, however, many of the boys who ``graduate'' from Penikese wind up behind bars later.

On the island, the boys - ``students,'' in Cadwalader's eyes - depend on themselves and each other for survival. They grow their own food, build buildings, mend fences, and learn to navigate the old boat, which is the only physical link between the island and the mainland.

For the first time in their lives, they learn what it means to be truly responsible, says Cadwalader. If they don't cut the firewood, there's no heat. If they don't care for the animals, there's no food. Such simple cause-effect relationships haven't been clear to these young people.

Cadwalader explains, ``The common denominator of all the kids at Penikese is the confusion that arises from living in a world that doesn't make any sense.''

Typical of many troubled youths, the boys grew up in troubled homes - mother and father separated, physical abuse, alcohol.

``It's true in almost every case - either an absent or a drunk or a bad father, and generally some sort of abuse beyond neglect,'' says David Masch - longtime staffer and marine biologist - known as ``Pops'' to the boys.

Inevitably parents who appear mixed up send mixed-up signals to their children, notes Cadwalader. A parent may treat his child well one minute and terribly the next for no logical reason. The child may become confused.

If the child gets into trouble for fighting, for example, the parents may punish him. But, if the parent turns around and boasts of how tough little Johnny is, he gets a mixed signal.

Cadwalader believes that trying to make sense of mixed signals sent by parents and society is ``like putting your hand on a stove which is hot one day and cold the next. You never know what to expect. The result is they have no guide to behavior.''

Life on the island is such a break with a boy's past that he can - and must - start again. This is what Cadwalader wanted when he began the ``experiment'' in 1973, with a dedicated, albeit non-professional, staff of ``role models'' on the former leper colony island in Buzzards Bay.

In his account, ``Castaways: The Penikese Island Experiment'' (Chelsea Green Publishing, Chelsea, Vt.), Cadwalader relates with candor ``the story of an experiment that would appear to have failed.''