Features

Pride and state prejudice

National | Youth Reach groups fight destructive teen attitudes and obstructive government policies

Issue: "Here we go again," Nov. 11, 2000

in Houston-Hidden behind Texas pine forests is a small Houston ranch home where each day at 3:30 p.m. a yellow school bus dispenses boys decked in white polo shirts and khaki pants. Like typical schoolboys, they jostle and tease one another before filing into the kitchen for after-school snacks. But jocular demeanors mask troubled souls. Two were sodomized by family members. Another can't forget the day he discovered his mother dead on the floor after his father shot her and then committed suicide. Many of the nine residents at Youth Reach Houston-a state-licensed foster home for troubled teenage boys-have similar stories. On a hot afternoon, the boys crowded around a tub of popcorn after school. One resident dutifully swept popcorn kernels off the kitchen floor as others got an early start on homework. Down the hall, three bedrooms sported clean floors and neatly made bunk beds. But the outward orderliness belied a brewing storm: The ranch was on "shut down"-no TV, video games or basketball-until the culprit who destroyed the household commode voluntarily confessed. "The boys who come here are very angry," said Youth Reach director Curt Williams, a 40-year-old father of four with a long pony tail and jet black eyes. "They have a lot of false pride. It's a façade ... and we try to make it clear to them that we know they really don't feel good about themselves. We try to get them to be honest with themselves." To foster honesty, Mr. Williams relies on a tough mix of biblically based grace and discipline. All new arrivals are automatically assigned to Level 0-the lowest of four ranch rankings based on demonstrated obedience and self-discipline. Those at Level 0 go to bed earlier, have no phone privileges, and perform the least popular chores. "It's basically a humbling period," said Mr. Williams. By earning good-behavior points, residents attain higher levels, gaining phone privileges, exemption from "kitchen duty," and the right to work outside the ranch. Grace begins when residents enroll for a year's worth of free lodging and meals. The only charge is a promise to follow the rules or pay the consequences. "There are no locks on the doors and no barbed-wire fences," Mr. Williams said. Over the last decade, Youth Reach has sheltered over 1,000 boys and recently opened new homes in Tennessee and Oklahoma. To strip pride, residents receive a daily dose of manual labor. "I tell them, 'I am going to love you more than you have ever been loved, and a sign of love is discipline,'" said Mr. Williams, who sold drugs on Houston streets until age 23 (WORLD, Jan. 30, 1999, "Houston's big fish"). That discipline style upset bureaucrats in the state social services department. Though the ranch refused taxpayer funding rather than risk compromising its biblical emphasis, a state license was enough to invite trouble. At issue is the "log pile"-a discipline entailing an afternoon of hauling logs. Mr. Williams requires all staff members to haul logs at least once before administering it as punishment. He occasionally assists residents with hauling as a way of demonstrating grace. Even so, state inspectors banned the log pile last year, deeming it "demeaning" to children. Sentence-writing punishments were also deemed "purposeless" and therefore inappropriate discipline. Asked why the log pile and sentence writing had to go, Texas Protective and Regulatory Services spokesperson Marla Shealy cited sections of the state's foster-care licensing policy: "A facility may not require or force a child to perform any unproductive work," the policy said. "These behavior management methods are prohibited because they do not meet the needs of any child." But a troubled child's most urgent "need," argued Mr. Williams, is drastic intervention to prevent a future crime statistic in the making. "If we don't turn these guys around, basically they are predators who will be on the streets or locked up," he said. "I've got all of the odds stacked against me, and I need every tool that works." At first Youth Reach fought back through the state's appeals process, but soon ran out of time and resources to fight a legal battle. Mr. Williams says he has lost about a dozen boys since then because he lacked appropriate discipline tools. "They [state officials] say they are worried about self-esteem. But I've got gangsters coming here that have done nothing but victimize and hurt people," he said. "That's not self-esteem. That's pride, and pride has to be broken." Apparently, he and the state have different definitions of self-esteem. Mr. Williams holds the biblical view that man's "self" is sinful outside of God's grace. State policy, however, is founded on the opposite belief that man is originally good and misbehavior is merely the product of a bad environment. The problem is not unique to Texas. In Oklahoma, Youth Reach Tulsa directors said the state ordered them to change or eliminate every reference to "punishment" in their rules manual before they could obtain a state license. Even so, Mr. Williams plans to retain his state license for the sake of credibility. Others are finding ways around the state's barriers. "We are trying to tailor a program that works for the church," said inner-city Houston pastor Henry Dibrell. Through a church ministry called Somebody Cares (WORLD, Sept. 9, "Faces"), he hopes to form a partnership between a private adoption agency and some 300 local churches. Using the private agency as a mediator, Mr. Dibrell wants to calm church members' fears of state interference and at the same time put a dent in the some 12,000 Texas children needing foster care. "If we get in there and they [state agencies] see a drastic change because the church was doing something about the problem, then we will have a voice," he said. Others have created alternate licensing systems. Rev. David Blaser of the Dallas-area Miller Road Baptist Church, for instance, founded the Texas Association of Christian Childcare. Headed by a group of Texas pastors, the association has permission from the state to accredit Christian foster-care homes. The association inspects homes for safety and health hazards and signs of abuse, but leaves discipline policies up to the home. "It's kind of a buffer between the state and the church," said Mr. Blaser. That buffer is possible thanks to recently passed Texas legislation requiring state agencies to respect the religious freedoms of "faith-based" community ministries. In Florida, similar legislation spawned the inception of 26 Christian foster-care homes. "We are taking care of close to 1,000 children a day and not getting one dime of tax money," said Ed MacClellan, director of the Florida Association of Christian Childcare Agencies. He is currently helping other states, including Indiana and Missouri, form similar accrediting associations. Back at Youth Reach Houston, wood chopping has replaced the log pile as the premium punishment. (Its "purpose" is to make firewood). One 17-year-old resident proudly showed WORLD his blistered hands after getting "the chops" for the eighth time that week. Rather than express resentment, he shared his revelation "that the pattern wasn't ending and I was going to get more chops ... so I just had to change my attitude. "It feels good when I get that last chop and it breaks and I'm done with my consequence," he said, "'cause you come back and it's a clean slate." Another boy-15-year-old Matthew Causey-openly laughed at the alternative punishment he received in a state-run home. "The worst punishment you could get was ... to stay in your room the rest of night," he said. "It wasn't a punishment-it was just 'Get away, you are annoying me.'" There's no getting away at Youth Reach. Loudspeakers are strategically posted on trees throughout the ranch, and bedroom doors can only be shut after 10 p.m. Constant supervision is made possible by on-site staff consisting of five married couples paid $200 a month (plus room and board). Though staff wages are low, payback comes in other ways: In August, recent Youth Reach graduate Brett Medlin, a former drug addict, stopped by to tell Mr. Williams about his new job as a medical technician. Last year "I wasn't working or going to school, my friends were dying and I thought that it would be easier for me to die than to try to get myself out of the hole," Mr. Medlin told WORLD. "Youth Reach was my last resort." He looked at the wooden fence by the Youth Reach home, with its tips carved into cresting waves. "I carved a decent bit of those," Mr. Medlin recalled. "I look at the fence now and I think, 'Wow, I had something to do with that.'"

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