Features 02/07/01

Breaking the cycle of delinquency: Therapy, talking, working, schooling . . . and bobbing chicken heads
• Will kids like Lucas survive through the help of Youthtrack?

By Ruth Turner

4:30 a.m. A glance at the watch says it's time to check on Lucas again.

Dan Call walks over to the bed, peers down at him, and writes on the paper "still sleeping soundly." Then he walks across the room and resumes his rocking on his green banana chair.

Rock, rock, rock.

It seems a little ridiculous to check on a 16-year-old boy 14 times a night, but Lucas isn't a normal 16-year-old boy. Lucas is a juvenile sex offender, and Lucas wrote a suicide note yesterday. And even with 24-hour supervision, these notes are taken seriously.

"You know, we have to observe him every 30 minutes," says Call. "But when he wakes up, he's going to have fill this same sheet out every 15 minutes."

Lucas isn't the only boy in this situation. There are many like him -- 32 in Utah, and 650 in the nation, involved with Youthtrack Inc., a national treatment and recovery program for juvenile sex offenders. All of the boys have committed sexual crimes that would be considered felonies if they weren't minors, and the boys and their parents have chosen treatment with this 5-year-old program over other, more severe punishments.

The goal of Youthtrack programs is to break the delinquency cycle of juvenile offenders and return them to their home communities as productive citizens.

These treatments include individual sessions with a therapist, group building, where they openly talk about their crimes, regular family contact, academic education, stress and anger management, and personal time to reflect, which usually includes writing in a journal. They are encouraged to talk openly about their crimes, and secrecy isn't allowed. Because secrecy is what makes them do it again.

Half of the boys live and go to school in Logan, while the other 16 go to school in Brigham City. Eight of those boys actually live in Brigham City and the other eight live in nearby Penrose. The boys are divided into these "tracks" of eight according to age and maturity, and in each of these facilities, there are youth counselors to see to this treatment and supervision.

Call works at the Penrose house, but his duties are a little different than most counselors' because he works the full-time graveyard shift. Instead of encouraging discussion, he makes sure his eight clients stay asleep. Instead of supervising behavior, he gets to sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet. But usually these nine hours of peace and quiet make for an uneventful night.

Rock, rock, rock.

"I just have to make sure they stay asleep," says Call. "And get them up in the morning, but basically we make sure they stay in bed, asleep." And sometimes that can be harder than it would seem, since some of the boys tend to wake up in the middle of the night sleepwalking or talking. But these interruptions usually provide more entertainment than work.

"Joshua woke up the other night asking, 'Are we going to Russia?'" says Call.

"We just laughed and said, 'Go back to sleep.'"

"And the program requires that they ask before they do anything," says Amber Taylor, who is an on-call counselor. "So if they have to use the bathroom during the night, we have to give them permission."

But like many graveyard jobs, the time passes slowly and it's a struggle to stay awake. The counselors are allowed to do whatever they want to pass the time, as long they stay in the main room and keep those four sets of bunk beds within sight. Two of the bunks are in the main room and can clearly be seen.

Taylor sits on the couch where she can see one of the other bunks in the adjoining room and Call sits on his banana chair, where he can rock backwards and see the other bunk.

The house is bare, almost with the appearance of a family just moving in. The only decorations are pictures the boys have drawn, and the only sign of life at night are the little plants potted in plastic cups in the kitchen windowsill. But there are comfy burnt orange and brown floral couches from the 70s to sit on, a 15-inch Quasar TV to watch, other counselors to talk to, and plenty of snacks to eat.

"There's an extremely large supply of caffeine upstairs," says Call. "But usually it ends up working against me rather than for me."

Taylor says, "I usually end up doing homework. It gives you time to get a lot of homework done."

Not to say that the nine hours of study time makes up for the lack of sleep, says Taylor. Nothing can replace sleep for Call and Taylor, who are full-time students at Utah State University, in addition to their full-time jobs at Youthtrack.

"It messes with your schedule; when you shower, when you sleep, when you eat, everything," says Taylor. "Your body never gets used to it, it's just not natural."

And it extends further than your next shower or meal. It begins to affect your social life, sometimes eliminating it.

"I actually sometimes pull out a planner and schedule a time to sleep," says Call. "A girl will call for dinner and I'll have to check my planner and say, 'Oh, I can't. I'm sleeping then.'

"I get worried about my social life. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie or been out on a real date."

5:30 a.m. Call stands up to check on Lucas again, and this time he's snoring. He writes on the paper "still sleeping soundly, has begun to snore." He walks across the room and once again resumes his position.

Rock, rock, rock.

He fast forwards through the movie "Twister," perhaps hoping the time will pass as fast as the movie.

A plastic mattress cover across the room crinkles, and another boy, Kevin, turns over and says, "Amber, can I get up now?"

"Kevin, normally you don't want to get up," says Taylor. "Normally you're saying 'It's sleepy time.'"

"But I'm bored." mumbles Kevin.

"Sorry, you have at least a half hour," says Taylor, turning away from Kevin. "See? They have to ask to do anything."

In a little while, it will be time to wake the boys up for the day, which is sometimes the hardest part of the graveyard shift. The counselors are supposed to model proper behavior and communication, but when the boys don't want to get up, they want to yell, just like any normal person.

"But we don't," says Call. "All of them are different and we have to try different things."

Some of the boys respond better when asked to get out of bed, rather than told. And some will respond when Call kneels next to their bed and asks them personally.

"One that I haven't tried is singing the 'Reveille' song," says Call. "I'm just dying to."

And once these boys are out of bed, they have to do their daily physical fitness routine, take their 10-minute showers, and do their daily chores, such as cleaning the bathrooms and vacuuming, all in the hour and a half they have before school starts.

6 a.m. This time Call doesn't have to check on Lucas, but he has to wake him up. They have to wake them all up. Call takes half the clients and Taylor takes the other half, walking from bed to bed calling out morning greetings. "It's time to get up, guys," says Call.

"Good morning guys," sings Taylor.

Call kneels down and says, "Good morning, Lucas. Don't take forever now, it's time to get up."

In a tangle of bodies and limbs, they boys fall out of a bed, each in a pair of navy blue sweatpants and gray Youthtrack T-shirt, tucked in. Some immediately make their beds; some just stumble around until morning fully settles upon them. And all at once, the questions start flying.

"Can I sit in this chair, Amber?"

"May I go in the other room to get something?"

"Can I go check on my laundry?"

And while all the other boys are scurrying around, Lucas hasn't budged more than an inch. Except now he's hunched over his bed, with his head down and his eyes closed.

"Are you praying, Lucas?" asks Taylor. " 'Cause if you're not praying, you need to get up."

The 16-year-old turns his head, opens one eye halfway to look at Taylor, then Call, then the rest of the boys, and finally pushes himself up off the bed.

He's finally up.

Call and Taylor give the boys a minute to fully wake up before starting their morning fitness routine, or PT, as the program likes to call it.

"The funny thing is, I've asked people about it, and nobody really knows what it stands for," says Call. "I think.physical training.or something like that."

Regardless of the exact name, few of the boys enjoy PT, and try their hardest to do as little as they can.

"It's pretty pathetic, maybe some stretches and a couple of sit-ups," says Taylor. "But you'd think it was the most painful thing they've had to endure." "Kyle sometimes looks like he's about to die," says Call.

And it does, indeed, seem painful. With the exception of Brandon, who is leading PT this morning, the exercises coming from the boys are, at best, half-hearted. When they're doing their sit-ups, their shoulder blades don't leave the ground. When they're doing their push-ups, their arms don't move, but their heads bob like chickens to give the appearance of movement. Their jumping jacks look like Raggedy Andy, with arms and legs flailing in every direction.

"Now watch this," says Call. "This is the best part."

Brandon yells, "full body stretch!" and all at once, the boys are flat on their backs on the ground, as if they were in the Army. Apparently, lying on the ground has the ability to stretch the boys' bodies better than a personal trainer.

With PT over with, the boys head to the showers, two at a time, while Taylor takes two of the boys upstairs to make breakfast.

If it were a weekday, the boys would have to leave for school by 7:30, but because it's a Saturday, they have a little more time to relax. Saturday is the day the house is cleaned from top to bottom, and they still have their treatments and group sessions. But they also get the chance to play outside, play games, and every once in awhile, go into town with family or a counselor.

The boys seem accustomed to their lifestyle, and try to be happy. And although a year can seem like a long time, and the boys can get discouraged, they know their good behavior will pay off. Because the better their behavior is, the more privileges they receive. The boys are categorized into Level 0,1,2, and 3. Level 0 boys can't even listen to the radio in the car on the way to school, while Level 3 boys can go to bed as late as 10:45. Obedience pays off in Youthtrack.

8 a.m. Just as the boys are finishing their chores, relief walks in the door, in the form of two daytime counselors, ready to start their shift. Luckily, it's two guys, so both Taylor and Call can leave.

"If the first counselor here is a girl, then Amber gets to leave," says Call. "Because we can't have two girls here, there always has to be at least one guy."

Call says goodbye to the boys, heads up the stairs, passing through the kitchen, passing the pathetic plants in the window, and pushes open the door, blinded by the morning light. But even getting in the car, he can't quite leave the boys behind.

I think they're happy, he says. Most of them anyways. But not Lucas. He's been in the program for a couple months now, and still isn't making any progress.

"If he doesn't start to make progress, they might move him somewhere else," says Call. "I'm not sure what's going to happen to him."


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