Why is it that we often wait until children get into trouble before we try to help them? Dealing with juvenile delinquency is a prime example. Though we don't know what causes it, we have created a whole "therapeutic industrial complex" to treat and prevent it: counseling, therapy, midnight basketball and a host of social and recreational programs.
We are a society of fast foods and quick fixes. And the problem du jour that gets the public's attention is often "fixed" with another program that might be currently in vogue. The result is we end up with a convoluted safety net of services that catches kids, gives them labels and orders them to be evaluated and referred to a maze of agencies that tell us how many youths they serve, but not how better off they are than before and all at taxpayers' expense.
Today's juvenile justice system is no different than the other social institutions we created in past eras to help children in America. In our schools, students who act out, overdose on drugs/alcohol or attempt suicide are the ones who finally get attention and help, while the quiet ones may be neglected and suffer in silence.
Those institutions may have worked well for a different era when change was slow. Now our society is changing rapidly and dramatically, and those institutions, including the family, that worked well then are slow to change with the times.
Families are now under greater stress trying to meet basic needs: both parents working, more one-parent families, and more latchkey children who lack thoughtful caregivers and are frequently left to learn values from TV, peers and the Internet. Youths from these families may be the ones lacking supervision, community ties and have conflicting senses of values, which can make them prone to anti-social behavior.
We don't always know the causes of anti-social behavior in children, but we do know all children have certain basic needs at each stage of their development and that their chances of living a healthy and productive life are good if those needs are met. And it starts with infants having loving caregivers to pass on the social skills and values needed to live in a civil society. The primary institution in a society to do that is the family and then others such as schools, churches and neighborhoods.
It took several generations for children to get the kind of social problems they have today; it will take another generation to begin recapturing those values that made the kind of society we once enjoyed. While we may create and redesign new programs to deal with anti-social and destructive behavior among youths, we must admit the modest impact they will have in preventing such behavior. More will depend upon our ability to muster the political will our country requires to restore the basic values needed to maintain a free and open society.
Utah needs to create a new set of family policies and programs that deal with the needs of children and families in today's changing world. Rather than focusing our efforts only on children, we should focus on helping families and renewing the values we once had and are now losing. It starts with a comprehensive approach to shore up the basic institution of our society the family with policies that promote programs such as child care, parental leave, decent-paying jobs, job retraining for adults, early childhood education, affordable health care for adults and children, and schools that accommodate parents' schedules.
John Florez was a member of President Ford's National Advisory Commission on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and is a former juvenile probation officer, child welfare worker and youth worker.