Hard Work on a Ranch for Young Offenders

Nestled in the rolling foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Emily Griffith Center might easily be a summer camp, a dude ranch, even a religious retreat. Nothing in the peaceful appearance of this ranch suggests that 65 emotionally disturbed and delinquent boys are confined to treatment here.

There is no fence surrounding the 100-acre property, no locked gates, no guards. The youths live in small log "lodges" - not cell blocks - on this rural swath of land. Yet most of the boys, who range in age from 10 to 21, have been sent to this residential facility by a juvenile court or public agency. Many have committed acts that could have landed them behind bars. On average, they have failed to improve in three to five prior placements.

The nonprofit Griffith Center, established in 1927 and funded by a combination of public and private sources, relies on alternative treatments, including animal-assisted therapy and wilderness challenges.

At a time when focus is increasingly being put on punitive measures for juvenile offenders, Griffith may seem like a throwback to another era. Indeed, ranch-based programs have been around for years, says Howard Shiffman, director of the center. But, he says, interest in their approach, which is used in several such programs dotted around the West, is growing steadily.

"A lot of people out there are feeling that the punitive approaches aren't working. Some experts even say that shock incarceration and boot camps have negative effects," Mr. Shiffman says.

And longterm, incarceration can be expensive. "It is the most costly form of intervention we have," says Ira Schwartz, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania and former director of the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention during the Carter administration. Confining delinquent youths to small residential treatment programs is a better investment, he says, because it yields reliable results. "This is ... the most effective approach. Then the youth can gradually be moved to other programs, like group homes."

Personal attention

Nate, a 17-year-old Detroit youth, was sent to the Griffith Center four years ago as a last resort. "I've been in the court system all my life," he says. "I've been everywhere you can think of: foster homes, detention centers. I spent a year and a half in detention for auto theft.

"When I first came here, I hated it. It's very restrictive, and I was used to being able to do what I wanted. But here, people care, and they want to talk to you. If you look sad, they ask if you're having a bad day or want to talk. In detention, they don't care. No one asks what's wrong."

Despite his initial resistance to Griffith, Nate says the personal attention finally got through to him. "Here, it's a really different environment. All I know is that it changed my life."

Today, Nate is about to leave Griffith's transitional-living program. He has a part-time job in town and volunteers at the fire department. He has completed high school and is looking forward to starting college. He dreams of becoming a neurosurgeon.

Shiffman says a key component of Griffith's program is working with animals. "We use horses to teach kids how to attach to living beings," he says. Youths who've been abused or neglected - an experience common to most juvenile offenders - often have trouble bonding, he says. Putting such kids one-on-one with a horse can break down emotional barriers and help develop attachment skills, Shiffman says.

Wilderness therapy, another essential tool, is used to improve self-esteem. Climbing 14,000-foot mountain peaks and completing month-long canoeing trips help kids face down daunting challenges, Shiffman says. A 30-foot-high rope challenge course is used to enhance trust, problem solving, and teamwork.

No longer 'fringe'

None of these therapies is new, nor exclusive to the Griffith program. But increasingly, what once were viewed as "fringe" treatments are now getting mainstream attention. The Colorado Department of Corrections, for example, has begun using animal therapy with adult prisoners.

Mark Murphy, a spokesman for Colorado Boys Ranch in La Junta, a program similar to the Griffith Center, also supports the approach. "Ten years ago, the establishment was saying that we were out of touch. Now, more people are saying that we're teaching traditional rural values - and that what we're doing works," he says.

According to Mr. Murphy, a recent followup study of 52 youths who left the program since 1982 indicated that 85 percent had stayed out of the criminal-justice system. Griffith Center has not tracked its graduates so far, although a study is underway.

Taking the long view

Shiffman says it's necessary to take the long view when treating deeply troubled youths. Given time and the right therapy, he believes even the toughest cases of delinquency can be turned around.

Also, Shiffman says, "we have some very emotionally disturbed kids here that would have just been 'throwaway kids' if they hadn't come here."

Treatment is expensive, however - $183 a day at Griffith, compared with $40 to $80 per day in adult corrections. Two-thirds is covered by taxpayer dollars, with the balance paid for by private fund-raising efforts.

To Josh, though, a resident who was sent to Griffith at age 14 from juvenile detention, the issue seems pretty simple:

"This place helped me with everything in my whole life. When I first came here, I was really scared. I didn't want to be here or do anything. But then I started to think that my whole life was ahead of me. And I just decided that this place was for me."

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