Treating Violent Children with a Therapist's Warmth

Wisconsin's Mendota Treatment Center Offers Violent Youths a Path to Recovery

Katherine Ellison

There wasn’t much to like about Tyler when he was 14. A lean, white kid who looked several years older than his age, he was covered in tattoos, including the letters “T-H-U-G” written across the fingers of his right fist. Having fled the home of an uncle who’d been trying to straighten him out, he was living on his own in a rented apartment in downtown Milwaukee, subsisting on a predawn routine of burglarizing parked cars. He landed in jail after he yanked a purse from a 78-year-old woman, who fell to the sidewalk in the scuffle, breaking her arm and hip. She developed pneumonia in the hospital and died there within the month.

Tyler’s chances that he’d have a normal, peaceful life, lived freely among others, declined further after the results came back from a clinical test meant to determine whether he might be a budding psychopath. Throughout the U.S. prison system, this fearsome label---the word psychopath literally means “diseased mind”---distinguishes the most hard-bitten predators, those least likely to benefit from therapy and most likely to commit new crimes.

The test given to Tyler was a juvenile version of the widely used Psychopathy Checklist, which Hare designed more than 30 years ago. It rated Tyler on a range of noxious traits common to adult psychopaths, including egocentricity, grandiosity, pathological lying, lack of remorse, lack of empathy, and “a parasitical lifestyle.” He scored high across the board.

Tyler’s diagnosis might easily have led him to be pushed off the metaphorical ice---segregating him from other inmates, preventing his parole, and predicting an inevitable spiral of defiance and punishment---except he got lucky. His warden transferred him to the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center in Madison, Wisconsin, a last resort for the state’s most violent and emotionally disturbed youth. The year was 1996, and the program was just a year old.

Sixteen years later, the 29-bed center remains rare, if not unique, among juvenile prisons in two outstanding ways. Located next to a state mental hospital, it’s run by shrinks, not wardens, and its continuing existence is assured by uncommon peer-reviewed research, including the striking finding that it’s reduced new violent offenses by 50 percent. “They’ve attracted a lot of interest and excitement after decades of people saying that nothing can be done for this population,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison psychologist Joseph Newman, a leading expert in the field.

On Tyler’s arrival at Mendota, he was assigned one of its standard, single-occupancy cells, with a steel door, a narrow window, and a mattress on the floor. Most of Mendota’s wards take one or more psychiatric drug, from mood stabilizers to stimulants for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder ADHD, to medications for anxiety and insomnia. Perhaps most important, though, Mendota’s high staff-to-inmate ratio means that its employees have the time, energy, and mandate to create personal bonds with the boys behind bars.

An Inside View
I spent two days at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center during a week when the maple trees surrounding its grounds were exploding in bright orange, red, and yellow. Pictures of pumpkins and ghosts hung in one of the classrooms, together with a sign reading “Welcome, Spooky Friends!”

The center sits on a grassy slope overlooking Lake Mendota, where it vies for postcard views with the homes of some of Madison’s wealthiest families. Royal-blue banners waving outside the walls trumpet the optimistic philosophy inside: “Respect. Hope. Help. Heal.”

From its origins, the project by Gregory van Rybroek, the center’s CEO, was boldly countercultural, reflecting his passionate conviction in nurture’s power over nature. Over the years, he and his Mendota collaborators designed and implemented a web of costly, energy-intensive strategies, united by the goal of prying the young inmates out of their reflexive anger and withdrawal through sturdy, warm relationships with the therapists and frontline staff workers, known as “psychiatric techs.”

Van Rybroek swears by the research of the psychologists Albert Bandura and Lawrence Sherman, who’ve argued that “prosocial” bonds help deter crime by giving people a stake in society, and thus a reason to work to control themselves.

“I don’t know that anyone is born evil,” van Rybroek told me on my tour. “I think it’s fairer to consider that they’re born into life circumstances in which they don’t have a choice. These kids have come from hell,” van Rybroek says. “If you lived in hell your first 15 years, you’d be that kid. The only way you survive is being aggressive, because that’s how the world has been with you.”

What Is Psychopathy?
After a few weeks at the Mendota center, Tyler told his therapists about the drunken stepfather who’d beaten him so often that he’d learned to hide in a kitchen cabinet whenever he came home. Tyler had never met his biological father, and said he knew his stepfather only by his nickname, Animal. Tyler’s mother was a stripper who spent little time at home until she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Shortly after that, Animal disappeared.

If such failures to nurture can create a fledgling psychopath, does that necessarily mean that van Rybroek’s brand of re-parenting can instill the missing empathy? Counterintuitive as it may seem to respond to youthful cruelty with kindness, what we do know is that a great deal of research suggests that warmth and strong relationships can help deter crime.

Seeing Results
Mendota’s strategy made a crucial difference for Tyler, the robber. He spent close to two years at the center, on the high side of the average stay. In his first few months, he got into fights with other kids and lost privileges for “gang talk” and sexual slurs to female employees. Yet over time, he attended his therapy sessions, got his tattoos removed, and turned a corner. Therapists located an aunt who was willing to have him come live with her, and he was released on probation in late 1997.

Within three months of leaving the Mendota center, Tyler was rearrested and convicted of one count of possession of stolen property. He pled guilty and was sentenced to five years’ probation. But since then, he hasn’t had a single additional arrest---nor even a traffic ticket---and no hint of renewed violent behavior, according to van Rybroek, who regularly tracks Mendota veterans through state databases. The last time van Rybroek checked, he told me, Tyler had married and started a small business.

Tyler’s progress might seem like small potatoes, particularly considering the youth’s rearrest so soon after his release. Yet considering his earlier history, it was cause to celebrate. His case offered early evidence that van Rybroek was doing something right, and as more years passed, he could see that Tyler’s case wasn’t an anomaly.

At the Mendota Center, no one ever calls a kid a psychopath. At most, the center’s therapists will speak of someone as having “psychopathic traits.” Inmates are rigorously referred to as “youth.” Faith in the possibility of redemption is embedded in the language.

This blog is excerpted from “Sympathy for the Devil." Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Children/Adolescents

Tags: addiction | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | networker | violence | Katherine Ellison

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016 10:26:18 AM | posted by Arlene
In my gut I have believed this to be true. I accepted a 17 yo 16 months ago and today is his 19th birthday. I have made every effort to show him unconditional love without judgment so that he can "experience" being more than a "worthless piece of shit." Change is slow, but he his one of the most gifted people I know and what a waste it would be for the world to not experience what he has to offer.

Sunday, January 3, 2016 12:47:43 AM | posted by Mary I
What a wonderful program! Children do not choose to be born into homes of chaos and have every right to live a good life. I would love to hear more results.