Vision Quest way: tough treatment for tough kids

"A year in the dark or a year in the dirt" is the way one boy sees the choice between jail and VisionQuest. VisionQuest is a program to rehabilitate delinquent teenagers by sending them on a wagon train across the Rockies. To describe the program as unorthodox is to put it mildly, yet it has achieved enough success in helping teen-agers considered chronic offenders and even incorrigibles to capture the interest of "CBS Reports."

"The Wagon Train Trial," which airs Wednesday, Feb. 27 from 8-9 p.m. Eastern standard time (check local listings), refers to a trial the Plains Indians purportedly call VisionQuest -- "Moving through a rite of passage into adulthood." But it sounds more like a buzz word than anything that ever came out of the mouth of a Plains Indian, and its tactics clearly derive from such schools of "confrontational" therapy whereby a person is conronted directly with his problems and commanded to take responsibility for them. VisionQuest director Bob Burton became frustrated with the failure of traditional methods to help the cases considered hopelss. He explains: "I used to work in institutions, and I started wondering after I was there for four or five years, you know, why is this kid different. And I found out that he's usually so aftraid of himself, and that nobody will stop him, and he gets suspended from school, he runs away from home, he gets banished from his community, and nobody will deal with his issues, except a locked door, or a fence, or some sort of psychotropic drugs or something. And I got sick of it."

So he founded VisionQuest to stop them from acting out their destructive an self-destructive i mpulses by imposing a conrol on them that is supposed to be the equivalent of parental concern. The program follows one of the wagon trains on its four-month 1,600-mile odyssey through Arizona and into Denver and focuses on a few of the 96 teen-agers whose problems are typical: theft, assault, prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.

The ultimate goal of the journey is to raise the self-esteem of the teen-agers by giving them the opportunity to finish something, to "win" finally, and to provide them with the strength and insight that will enable them to gain conrol of themselves. There is nothing wrong with the theory, but the methods may strike some viewers as too harsh or punitive. The program has in fact had to answer charges of child abuse in three states, all of which cleared it.

The sight of Burton shouting his disapproval into the face of a disturbed young boy or of staff members wrestling another boy to the ground (VisionQuest believes in "touching") is painful bordering on shocking, and one wonders just how far on can take Hamlet's famous rationalization -- "I must be cruel only to be kind" -- in justifying one's behavior, or "aggressive love" as Burton calls it.

Producer Patti Obrow White and correspondent Betsy Aaron have clearly made an effort to present a balanced view of VisionQuest and Miss Aaron is excellent at anticipating the viewer's reactions. One cannot help but question, however, the effect on the teen-agers of having their moments of intense personal anguish filmed by a television crew and whether the intrusive presence of the camera might not have had an invalidating and possibly a damaging influence.

Nevertheless "CBS Reports" has performed a service in brinin this program to public attention, for it not only forces a reassessment of conventional treatment but makes clear to parents the need for caring and constructive discipline to protect teen-agers from themselves.

The melancholy impression with which this program leaves us is that a society that has to resort to sending its children on wagon trains to heal them would probably have been better off if its adults had never gotten off them in the first place.

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