Family Living Comes To Troubled Kids

Boys Town - celebrating its 75th anniversary this year - takes its youth care nationwide

IN a midmorning rush from Manhattan to Brooklyn, N.Y., Rev. Val J. Peter talks of the aching need in the United States for better youth care.

His sentences aren't saturated with national statistics or clogged with clinical- treatment talk. Rather they reveal stories about children and teens who've come to Boys Town, stories that are not pleasant:

* A 13-year-old boy, whose father chained him to a bed since he was six, finally broke the chain, poured gasoline in the basement of the house, lit a fire, and left.

* A girl whose father sexually abused her and her sisters says she wants to live with him when he gets out of a state penitentiary. "I want everybody to think we have a normal family life," she says.

* A boy who was sexually abused by his father and his father's friend ran away, and got heavily into drugs.

* A girl found walking along a freeway said she was getting up enough courage to throw herself in front of a car.

Fr. Peter's tone is one of calm recognition, not emotion. Studies show that victimized children seek revictimization and sometimes become victimizers themselves, he explains.

As executive director of Boys Town, Peter says he and his staff have a "youth-care technology" to share that fulfills Boys Town's mission: "to help heal America's troubled youth."

The outreach program is called Boys Town USA. It serves to replicate across the country the same type of "family home" environment developed at the flagship Boys Town in Omaha, Neb. Boy's Town celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The nonprofit organization is traditionally directed by a Roman Catholic priest, but is nonsectarian.

Boys Town USA sites have opened in New York, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Iowa, Rhode Island, and southern California. Its goal is to have 17 sites operating by the end of 1993. The outreach may seem ambitious and, at times, overwhelming. In 1972, Boys Town was accused of fundraising far beyond its immediate needs. The highly publicized allegations caused a public relations disaster. Today, the organization feels that those funds have allowed it to continue to expand during a recession. Needs have forced new methods of youth care, and Boys Town is resolute in unleashing them, says Peter.

In the late 1960s, he says, "All of a sudden we started to get kids who had drug problems. Father Flanagan's methods could not heal those kids." The "sea of change" grew to include suicide. The magnitude of problems - first in numbers and then in acuteness - was greater than in the past, he explains.

In researching and working with the National Institute of Health at the University of Kansas, Boys Town decided to employ a child-care "technology" that was untraditional to some: Start on the outside, not the inside. The youth care is functional family living; the treatment is a mix of love and a science. "Love without science is sentimentality," Peter says. "Science without love is pure manipulation."

He offers a case example: "Billy." Billy doesn't know who his father was. His mother had mental problems and gave him up when he was 5. He's been in and out of shelters, foster homes, and three psychiatric hospitals - because he attempted suicide five times. He's also using drugs.

Where do you start? Someone might say "therapy." But "we're the group that said, `Nope. Start on the outside,' " says Peter.

First, you make sure Billy wants to get better. "If he doesn't want to get better, then I can't help him," Peter continues. You need to do what it takes to have him quit taking drugs. You wash his hair, change his clothes, and ask him to make some life-style changes.

In the process of this big change on the outside, he might start talking about suicide, that maybe life isn't worthwhile. Then he may offer "Well, you might as well know why I was taking drugs in the first place" and you uncover loss, separation, or deep anger he has that his mother and father didn't care enough about him.

"The boy wanted to change his name," says Peter, recalling this particular boy. "Now we're beginning to make some progress. At some point Billy is going to need one-on-one with a professional, but that supplements things going on in a home."

What's goes on in a Boys Town USA family home? The experience is family-based, family-centered, Peter says. Billy's experience is healthy and hopeful in a home. He has a "mother and father," a professionally trained married couple. He is also safe: safe from the streets, safe from abuse, and safe from being offered drugs. He is improving and he's happy knowing he's making progress. "Performance precedes self-esteem," says Peter.

Here in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn are two comfortable brownstones, one for six girls and one for six boys, not too far from one another. Each Boys Town USA household typically cares for six children, aged 9 to 14. The children are referred to Boys Town through licensed agencies.

In contrast to group-home situations and foster care, Boys Town family homes are headed by "family teachers," a married couple trained in Omaha. They act as full-time parents; this is their only job. Each household also has an assistant as well as several advisors.

Another important characteristic of the program is that it treats kids in their own environment. "It would be very easy to remove these kids and send them to Nebraska, but that's not the real world" for them, notes Nina Lempert, a project manager for the New York City Child Welfare Administration, who is familiar with the Brooklyn Boys Town. "If you can show them success in their own environment, there's a good chance of it sticking." Ms. Lempert speaks highly of the program, citing that Boys Town is wi lling to work with very difficult kids. "In New York City, especially, adolescent age range can be difficult. These kids have a lot more behavioral problems and emotional disturbances."

Instead of "taking over" youth care, Boys Town wants to complement and help existing programs. Importantly, say Boys Town staff, they're building a network of programs that act in preventing the problems of today's youths. Says Peter: "From a strategic point, we're at a critical mass."

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