Unlocked-up youth

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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.''

Success rate hard to determine

In the beginning, he shared the prevailing notion of the 1970s reformers that ``bad kids were simply the products of bad environments'' and that ``changing the environment could change the kid.'' Fifteen years and 100 boys later, he's less naive.

Statistics from 1980 show a 16 percent ``success'' rate among boys who leave Penikese. A follow-up survey revealed that - of the 106 students who came to Penikese in the first eight years - only 16 were working, avoiding trouble with the law, and optimistic about their futures. Thirty-two were in jail.

Cadwalader is not as disillusioned as he might be. ``I thought that the results we would achieve would show that we were doing it right,'' he says. ``I still think we're doing it right. It doesn't mean that we're getting any better results.

``It is important to define success,'' Cadwalader continues. He points to the 30-plus percent who get into less serious trouble later than they would have if they hadn't come to Penikese. ``It's this middle group that really benefits the most.''

Tangible results are hard to come by in this business.

``I think that it's the small changes that count. His life is made somewhat better. Therefore, someone else's life - family, friend - is better. Not stealing from his friends - that's progress. Changing a potential murderer into a car thief is progress.

``The kids that come to Penikese have screwed up so many times - at home, in school, in the DYS system - that it would be the worst form of arrogance to assume that you're gonna filter all but your most disturbed and get a 90 percent success rate.''

He's also critical of programs that claim to rehabilitate by causing fear of the consequences - usually lockup. ``Programs like Scared Straight don't force the kids to make the connection between right and wrong behavior,'' he feels. ``The kid who stops stealing because it's in his best interest to stop stealing is still potentially a thief.''

Cadwalader is quick to point out the importance of values.

``There has to be a moral component to rehabilitation,'' he insists.

In the early '70s, however, the emphasis was on making the individual ``feel good about himself'' without imposing values on him. ``These kids need a clear sense of right behavior - signposts,'' Cadwalader contends.

``I think you can teach Christian values without a formal religious component - the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, general guides to ethical behavior.''

Cause and effect.

Right and wrong.

``At Penikese we provide a structure of consistency that will allow them to make connections - where the right values work. There is peer pressure not to steal, because everybody suffers, Cadwalader says.

But if the boy's random environment doesn't reflect the values of Penikese, what is the boy to do when he returns?

Cadwalader admits that it's not easy. ``I think we have to look at those aspects of society which create the kids.

``If we present them with Rambo as a role model, we can't be surprised if they measure their own effectiveness in terms of how violent they are.

``These kids aren't mutants,'' he says. ``They've taken trends in society to their `logical' extreme.

``If we beat them over the head - as Madison Avenue does with `buy now, pay later, you only go around once; if it feels good, do it' - that's just what they'll do. If they want something, they'll take it.''

Remarks one student, who misses ``lights and action,'' ``This place ain't my style. It ain't so bad. George is a good dude.''

Says Cadwalader, ``I think we make a bad situation less bad.''

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...