Researchers fear WV children's program doing more harm than good
June 13, 2012 ·
Some believe a program meant to help troubled youth in West Virginia might be doing more harm than good, but the organizer of the Scared Straight and Aftercare program is standing by it.
“We love her and want what’s best for her," Danielle Redfern said about her daughter. "We don’t want to have to come here on a real basis.”
In April, Redfern, like other parents, enrolled her child in the Scared Straight and Aftercare program as a last resort.
The kids were handcuffed, and forced to wear blue jumpsuits and a number. They were escorted into Southern Regional Jail where they heard stories of physical violence, sodomy, and even death as a way of life behind bars. They heard from an inmate and a correctional officer.
It’s similar to the hit Arts and Entertainment channel TV show, “Beyond Scared Straight”.
Organizer of the West Virginia program, Twila Cooper says it’s meant to be real.
“We are all accountable and responsible for our own choices,” Cooper said, “and you can’t blame others for your choices and if they don’t make the right choices and as scary and as graphic as this is. This is the way it’s going to be.”
Dr. Jill Nolan has a PHD in Public Health Science and is an Assistant Professor of Health Education at Concord University. She says she’s disappointed to hear that West Virginia children went through this program.
“There was a big concern for me," Noloan said. "If it’s something that’s going on in west Virginia in my community, I’m from Southern West Virginia, and I know that it could potentially be harmful I really just couldn’t let it go."
“Scared straight is actually one of my examples that I use in my courses of something that does not work because there’s been about three decades of research showing that there is no impact on these kids."
"They still end up being incarcerated at the same rates or sometimes there’s also a harmful affect where they get incarcerated at higher rates.”
Nolan points out that a meta-analysis, a method that compiles data from a number of scientifically sound studies, was conducted in 2002. The analysis, by the Campbell Collaboration is called “Scared Straight” and Other Juvenile Awareness Programs for Preventing Juvenile Delinquency.”
It found that, “the intervention on average is more harmful to juveniles than doing nothing.”
In 2011, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice also cited this study along with several others and spoke out against Scared Straight type programs, in a report, “Scared Straight; Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Tara Andrews is the Coalition’s deputy executive director.
“Showing young people the negative consequences of negative or criminal behavior sounds like it should deter them from engaging in that behavior," Andrews said, "but the research just doesn’t bear that out."
"Young people are wired differently their brains are still developing they measure risk differently than adults do. A Scared Straight like program may have a short term impact on that young person’s behavior or outlook the research has found that in the long term that impact wears off.”
The report even goes as far to say that these programs may violate federal law.
Andrews says CJJ supports practices and policies that are evidence or resaerch based.
As a public health specialist, Dr. Jill Nolan agrees and says that’s the part that concerns her the most.
“From a public health perspective, it’s very concerning," Nolan said, "because this is one of the things you really don’t want."
"If you’re going to have programs implemented in the community you really want to have something that’s researched and evidence based so that if we know that if we’re intervening and interacting with these kids there is going to be a positive outcome."
“A lot of times sex education programs or drug abuse prevention programs, they’re built on people with very good intentions but who don’t really look at the research to see what’s going to be most effective.”
Scared Straight creator Twila Cooper says her program is different because of the counseling aspect. After children are exposed to prisoners and the jail system, Cooper gives them contact information of counselors in their area.
“I don’t council. I’m not a counselor, don’t want to be a counselor," Twila said, "but what I am able to do through contacts that I have who are professionals in that area, I can have contact information that I provide to the parents in letter form, to their area because we have children that from Bridgeport, Morgantown, Glenville, Princeton from all over and they didn’t know who to contact for help.”
Cooper says she follows up with phone calls to the families to check on their progress, but counseling is not incorporated into the program.
“I can’t make anybody do anything," she said. "I can just provide them with the correct information and hope they will and so far they are following through like I said because they do want help."
But Tara Andrews with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice points out some studies show referrals alone, are not enough.
“In those instances where there did not seem to be a negative impact," Andrews said, "was an instance where that was one component of a multi-component program that included counseling, not just referrals to counseling but actually provided counseling and the scared straight component was not the star of the program.”
Cooper says the children are often referred to her program by social workers.
The first group of children went through the program in March. Cooper says she’s heard nothing but positive feedback from the families.
“The families that I’ve been able to speak with either call me or get in touch with me in some way," Cooper said, "and tell me how thrilled they are with the turn around not only for themselves but because of the counseling were able to get them in for the families as well."
"We actually had some families that wanted to send some of their other children.”
“When we are taking it upon ourselves," Tara Andrews with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice said, "to steer young people young people in the right direction our hearts and our passion are the fuel that we need to use but there’s a lot of research out there that shows what works and what doesn’t work."
"We need to make ourselves aware of the research."
Cooper says she’s aware of the research but stands by her program. The program has been put on hold, Cooper says, because of funding issues.