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Failure to Maintain Placement

failure to maintain placement — (FTMP) Caseworker-speak for a runaway youth—a common problem of foster care, Child Haven and juvenile delinquency camps. "Ran away" is too casual for official reports, so instead we say, "The subject child failed to maintain the placement." Also sometimes known as "AWOL" (from military jargon: Absent Without Leave).

It's an embarrassing situation: The government is supposed to be responsible for the kid but doesn't know where he is. If this condition persists for an extended period, then wardship is terminated by the court. The kid is still missing, but the government isn't responsible any more.

A recent news article on the topic says:

That is probably a low estimate. There are only 75 missing because if a child has vanished for long enough, state responsibility will be terminated and they will fall off the rolls.

Kids don't just run away from bad placements where the staff or foster parents don't care; they run away from good ones, too. Conscientious foster parents can't understand it. "I'm doing everything I can for him," they say. "His situation is far better now than it was before, so why doesn't he want to be here?"

Maybe he does want to be here, and that's the problem.


It's all about feelings, not facts. The kid may have been hurt so many times that he is expecting it to happen again. Rejection and betrayal are part of his nervous system: He knows it's going to happen; it's just a matter of when. Instead of the agony of waiting for humiliation, he might prefer to take control and makes it happen himself.

And therein lies the root of a whole universe of self-destructive and acting-out behaviors—not just in youth but in adults like you and me.

Running away, more often than not, is preemptive rejection.

Why doesn't the kid do the sensible thing and just stay put? He's got a bed. He's got his meals. He's got someone who at least cares about him more than the street does. Why can't he act rationally?

Because none of us do. It's all emotional. Running away is an emotional defense against a perceived threat to the self. You see, things that seem good on the surface don't always feel good inside.

In people who have been hurt before, there is always some paranoia. It's like when a handsome man you hardly know shows up on your doorstep with chocolate and flowers. You may be flattered by the attention, but part of you is asking, "What's wrong with this picture?" (especially if you happen to be male). Good things always create suspicion and internal tension in those who aren't expecting them.

Running away is only one way that a youth can preempt rejection. Another is to steal the foster parent's car, go for a joy ride and crash it into a wall. In most cases, that kind of outrageous act is a pretty effective way of terminating the relationship.

When you move a kid abruptly from a deprived environment to a warm and generous one, such things are bound to happen. There is going to be some sort of outrageous reaction sooner or later—a preemptive attack against an imaginary threat. It could be expressed by running away or by some form of running away without leaving. The kid can steal a car, refuse to go to school, bring drugs into the home, engage in risky sex, or otherwise defy or torment the new parents in ways that gain him nothing except a temporary sense of control over his fears.

In other words, he can do all sorts of teenage things to try to sabotage the placement because, at some primitive emotional level, he knows it is too good for him. He can't verbalize his motivations, of course. There's not much point in trying to talk him out of whatever destructive behavior he's engaged in, because those control circuits aren't connected yet. Punishment isn't very effective, because his feelings right now are much more significant to him than any future cause-and-effect.

Chaining the kid to a wall in the basement might work, but that's not legal. There's also a good chance he's going to find a way out, because they're clever little buggers, at least in a technical sense.

Discipline by itself doesn't work; it just pushes the conflict underground. Court orders don't work. Classes don't work. Police can arrest, and judges can dole out consequences. None of this addresses the underlying problem of youth rebellion, which is usually a lack of self-earned accomplishment.

Solution

There's really only one solution to the runaway problem: engagement.

Kids who are whitewater rafting down the Colorado River don't run away. They are engaged. They are testing themselves against a powerful foe, the elements. There is no chance to walk away and no time to rebel against anyone.

Too bad we can't make such adventures last for a couple of years rather than just a few days.

There are other adventures that are more sustainable. Kids who are actively engaged in any kind of activity, from video games to mountain biking, are less likely to rebel or run away. The challenge to the caregiver is to help them find this engagement within the confines of what is possible.

The form of activity is different for every kid, and there is no easy answer for what it should be. Obviously, you can't raft down the Colorado every week, and any activity you just hand to the kid will probably be rejected. You can try to provide options, but a kid's got to find his engagement on his own.

The job of the caregiver is to look for a spark in the child's eye, and jump on it when it happens. Whatever caused the spark is the activity that should be subtly enabled.

We may be be appalled when a kid spends sixteen hours a day killing Klingons, but at least it's something. It's better than drug abuse or running with a gang, and it seems to give them genuine pride whenever they advance to the next level. It keeps them off the street, and since they are attached umbilically to The Box, it keeps them from running away.

The sad thing about many foster children is that they haven't had a chance to develop even their thumbs. They suck at killing Klingons, and they know it. Their lives have been kept in such turmoil by their parents' disease that no kind of stable interests have been possible. They haven't had a safe place where they can keep their Box—or more importantly, their memory card.

If you lose your memory card, you lose everything and have to start over in the game from scratch. This is basically what happens to a foster child every time he changes homes.

A kid who arrives in a new home without skills, without memory and without any interests that he knows of, is a kid in trouble. Unless he can be engaged—and soon—then he is probably going to burn out of this home in one way or another.

The single most important task, then, is to get him engaged in something he likes as quickly as possible. Maybe the county should have "engagement counselors," whose job is to find out what a kid likes to do and find a way to enable it within the confines of the system. Okay, it probably won't fly in the funding department, but fostering some kind of active investment by the kid in his environment is probably the only solution to the runaway problem. Heck, it may be the most important goal in raising children anywhere.

When a kid runs away, what do you do? You hunt him down and bring him back. What happens then? He runs away again, and you hunt him down and bring him back.... It doesn't seem like we have really solved anything, does it?

To fix the runaway problem, you need to address the psychological system that makes it happen. Kids who are engaged in activities they enjoy don't usually run away from those activities, so the best approach is to help them find that magical occupation.

If killing Klingons does the trick, lets enable that! It isn't utopia we're shooting for here; we just need to get by for the next year or so 'til the kid's world stabilizes and he starts to emerge from his fog.

You can't provide many services to a kid who runs away, but a kid who kills Klingons is at least available for appointments.



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