WHEN LAYNE MEACHAM was in junior high school he was expelled for stuffing marbles and balloons down the school's tuba. It was the sort of thing you might call a prank - if you hadn't spent years trying to make Layne Meacham behave.
He was the kind of boy who made a career out of defying authority. And in those days they locked kids like that up.He was sent to the State Industrial School in Ogden when he was 16. After he tried to escape they kept him in a room with a bed but no mattress. He was considered one of the most ungovernable of the most ungovernable boys in the state of Utah.
But that was then and this is now, a time that finds Meacham the head of a private program helping teenagers as troubled as he himself used to be. He's part of the establishment now.
Sort of. As Meacham would be the first to admit, he's still a troublemaker.
Consider, for example, the lawsuit Meacham has filed against the Utah Department of Social Services and the Division of Youth Corrections. Meacham is seeking a declaratory judgment that would give parents and his organization, Proctor Advocate, the right to determine who a child can associate with.
In other words, Meacham wants the right that every parent dreams of - the right to pick a kid's friends.
Meacham's Proctor Advocate program currently works with 25 teenagers, ages 13 to 18. All of them, he says, can be diagnosed as having "conduct disorder," a set of behaviors that can best be summed up by that less clinical phrase "rotten."
These kids sluff school, get poor grades, are sometimes violent, defy authority, use drugs and are sexually active.
And these kids, says Meacham, "can work you to death. It's con-man stuff."
By the time their parents come to Meacham they have usually had the kids in one or more private hospitals, generally to treat the drug part of the problem. But the kids continue to use, and to defy. The parents come to Meacham because they've heard he takes matters into his own hands.
"They think of me as The Equalizer," he laughs.
The first thing Meacham does is have the parents give him in loco parentis rights over their child. Then he goes to pick up the kid. These are generally surly encounters, matched by Meacham's own stubbornness.
"I'm going to pick up a kid from the detention center on Wednesday. And he's going to think the same old rules apply. He'll say, `When do I get out?' And I'll say, `When do you turn 18?' "
He expects his kids to live for 45 days with a "proctor" family. He expects them to go to school, every period, and to get signatures from each teacher, every day. After they move back in with their parents, he expects them to come to Proctor Advocate every day except Sundays. On Sundays they are expected to attend either a religious service or a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. He expects them to stay in the program at least two years.
If they run away, he'll go after them. "I tell them, `Do you understand? I'm not going to let you go. If you run to California, I'll go get you."
He'll go get them and he'll also sue their friends.
THE PROCTOR ADVOCATE building on 27th West looks like an unlikely place for global change. Located next door to AAA Forklift in a little one-story industrial park, the offices include a couple of sparsely furnished small front rooms and a big chilly warehouse room in the back.
On a Wednesday night recently, a half-dozen teenage girls sat around in the chilliness after a peer group meeting and talked about Proctor Advocate.
"I started using drugs when I was 8," one of the girls says, beginning a travelogue through the dark regions of her past. She used to sleep around. She ran away. She thought a lot about killing herself. She was put in the Rivendell Children and Youth Center Hospital for six months, a place she liked, she says. "But I broke their rules behind their backs." A month after getting out of the hospital, she was back to her old friends and back on drugs.
She's been in the Proctor Advocate program for nine months. "If you can make it through this program you can make it through anything," she says. "It's the toughest two years of your life. . . . You won't find anyone in this program who totally loves it."
What makes the program work, she says, is its insistence on keeping kids away from their old friends, and its focus on the "guided peer pressure" of the teen support groups. A kid is able to get through to other kids better than an adult can, she says.
She says all the girls in the program plan to go on to college.
"It probably looks like an LDS mutual meeting to you now," says Meacham later about the group's relative wholesomeness. "But I have claw marks on my arm from one girl. It's taken me 80 hours a week for a year to win them over."
Unlike most programs for troubled teems, Meacham bypasses professional therapy, relying instead on the ability of the teens to get each other in line.
Root causes of a kid's behavior don't concern Meacham anyway. "I don't care `why.' I just say: `Go to 5th period.' "
But he doesn't want his kids to totally lose the rebellious streak that makes them tenacious and creative. Re-channel those energies, he tells them. "If you like to argue, become an attorney."
"I try to keep them in the game till they can come up to bat."
Meacham charges $7,900 for the program (which can continue until a teen is 18, if the parents choose) compared to more than $10,000 for several months at a free-standing psychiatric hospital. He expects parents to attend Proctor Advocate parent meetings once a week and to attend a Tough Love or Al-Anon meeting once a week. He also expects them not to "rescue" their children.
"The only way a child fails is if a parent rescues or the system rescues."
Some people think he's a "power-hungry narcissist," he says. But he thinks of himself more like the grandfather in "Heidi" - gruff on the outside, kind underneath.
And of course also a troublemaker. "I like to be thrown into a stew of conflict and float to the top."