Kids Out of Control : When Teen-Agers Run Wild, Questions Arise on Parental, Societal Roles in Family Life

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Times Staff Writer

Jane Martin watched a handful of the 600 kids under her control trooping past the brick walls and high fences at the San Fernando Valley Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.

As supervisor of that small link in the labyrinthine system of cops, courts, camps, schools, foster homes and treatment programs that contend each day with the thousands of kids who have run into trouble, she has paid particular attention to the news of late.

What went wrong that so many of the kids society produced now have come back to haunt us? Where along the line did we lose control?


“We have to look at our culture,” she said. “How did our priorities change?”

Figure that out, she said, and you might begin to figure out the youthful violence that has suddenly captured the country’s attention.

In New York’s Central Park this month, a dozen or so 14-, 15- and 16 year-olds, went “wilding,” attacking strollers at random and brutally beating and raping a jogger. When the police asked why, one teen-ager allegedly said, “For fun.”

Prophecy in Film

Last weekend in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, two boys, 15 and 11, allegedly shot a 79-year-old man with with BB guns. They reportedly told the police they did it as a joke. That same weekend, gang kids shot up half a dozen other Angelenos with real bullets, adding two more people to the 2,700 murders they’ve committed this decade.

“I’ve thought about ‘Clockwork Orange’ more than a couple of times lately,” said Michelle Lewis, juvenile placement director for the Los Angeles County Probation Department, referring to the futuristic film in which amoral youths roam the streets inflicting pain for no apparent reason.

Reacting to the Central Park attack, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said that New Yorkers are now confronted with “the terrible possibility that we have, by our failures, produced young people who have learned to disdain simple principles of right conduct, principles so basic to our good order, that we never contemplated their being rejected.”

Ask around in the hodgepodge of groups trying to get a grip on what’s happening with young people in this country. They say America is like a big dysfunctional family.


Most concede that a percentage of young thugs ought to be locked away where they can’t do more harm. But they also say that society can no longer afford to sneer at the cliche--that young creeps may owe their criminal behavior to “a troubled childhood.”

Lisbeth B. Schorr, whose 1988 book, “Within Our Reach,” has become required reading by many policy makers, sees the chasm quickly narrowing between conservatives who blame juvenile delinquency on a parent’s failure to teach values, and liberals who see the problem stemming from ingrained social injustice.

Change the Values

Most experts now agree that values must be changed through education, health care and other social programs, she said.

The fusion of viewpoints comes in part “because everyone is really scared,” she said. It is also fueled by business leaders’ realization that unless something changes, they may soon be faced with a major shortage of educated, trustworthy workers.

The State Bureau of Criminal Statistics reports that felony arrests of juveniles in California have tended to drop since 1979.

But most people who work with problem kids say there are more relevant statistics. According to the child advocacy group Children Now, more kids than ever are growing up in poverty in California--1 in 5; 1 out of 3 kids never gets a high-school diploma.


“In California, we have hit all-time highs and lead the nation per capita for kids in foster care and kids in juvenile custody,” said Richard Barth, an associate professor in the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare and a contributor to the “Conditions of Children in California” report issued this year by an organization called Policy Analysis for California Education.

“How are we doing?” asked Lewis of the probation department. “We’re sticking our finger in the dike.”

Lyn Kobosa-Munro, a social worker at Hathaway Children’s Services, a privately run social services agency, agreed. “The world’s complicated. Pressures on parents are increasing.”

And while those pressures are building most dangerously in homes where a single parent struggles to put meals on the table, the yuppie mom and dad hard pressed to make the BMW payments are not exempt.

Parenting takes more energy than most tasks, but when parents come home drained from a day of coping with modern life, there’s not much energy left for child rearing, Kobosa-Munro said.

And parents who are overwhelmed lack the energy to respond with what Kobosa-Munro calls an appropriate “you did WHAT?” response. Instead, they respond by “shrugging their shoulders,” until, suddenly, they decide that their child is out of control.


“The kid isn’t out of control,” she said. “It’s just that (the parents) are not doing the controlling.”

Often, parents whose kids are out of control were out of control themselves when they were young, Kobosa-Munro said. They figure they outgrew their problems and their kids will, too.

Adventures of the Beav

But being out of control has changed radically since the days when Wally and the Beav were getting in and out of jams.

In most parts of the country, society no longer nurtures its kids on the road to adulthood. Kids are no longer escorted from the classroom by a caring teacher, kept under surveillance by concerned neighbors, paternally cuffed by a friendly minister or rabbi.

“The informal safety net--strong neighborhood, strong church, strong schools--has been slashed,” Barth said. At the same time, new pressures are pushing kids away from traditional values and out of parental control.

“Here in the Bay Area, kids around the sixth-grade are being recruited to be spotters for 10th-graders who are dealing drugs,” Barth said. “No one told me I could make money as a spotter when I was in sixth-grade.”


Consequently, families that could have withstood a few adolescent crises in the past, “suddenly aren’t functioning so well,” Barth said. “They have a much greater challenge than they did before.”

And once a kid’s fortunes start to slip, many people simply can’t afford to spend the time it takes to straighten out the mess. For many, taking the time off work to shepherd a kid through his troubles, to seek counseling and to confer with his teachers can be a gamble that risks the employment that keeps the kid fed.

“And the schools probably wouldn’t have social workers or staff that could develop or implement a plan anyway,” Barth said.

The obvious problem, said Judy Nelson, executive director of the Children’s Bureau of Los Angeles, is that “there are no funds in this country. We just pay after the fact.”

Heather B. Weiss, who runs the Family Research Project at Harvard, agreed. “Trying to get funding for prevention when the world is falling apart around you is very tricky,” she said. “There is a lot of vested interest in the way things are.”

While crucial, the complex public bureaucracies and private institutions that incarcerate and try to treat problem kids tend not to see beyond “crisis intervention and crisis treatment,” she said. “But at some point you have to stand back and say, ‘The systems we’re working with now aren’t working. That’s what I think people are now agreeing . . .”


Society has come up with some solutions. More and more experts concur that if society intervenes in the early years of a child’s life and helps the parents develop child-rearing skills, the chances of what Lisbeth Schorr calls “rotten outcomes,” decreases dramatically.

By most accounts, the release in 1987 of the Washington D.C.-based Committee on Economic Development report “Children In Need; Investment Strategies for the Educationally Disadvantaged,” gave a range of policy makers a good shake.

Society Must Intervene

The report, sponsored by a number of Fortune 500 companies, concluded that society “has to intervene at various stages along the developmental spectrum, from prenatal care all the way to adolescence,” said Sandra Hamburg), a spokeswoman for the council. “We’ve taught people to be disaffected from the society in which we all have a stake,” she said, adding that now it’s time “not only to teach people how to work, but how to understand society and govern it.”

The program will cost a lot. But, putting it in terms the sponsoring companies would understand, the study, Hamburg said, “identified some particularly effective investments for these kids, the kinds that really yield good results in financial terms and human terms.”

Explaining those investments is a major goal of Children Now, said Wendy Lazarus, vice president for policy at that Los Angeles based child-advocacy group.

It costs a total of $3,000 to provide in-home support services for a family, she said. “That’s about what it costs per month for a child removed from a home.”


Peter Forsythe was a prosecutor before becoming director of the Edna Clarke McConnell Foundation in New York, one of the growing number of private foundations sinking money into solving the problem of delinquent kids. He goes out of his way to say he is no mollycoddler.

But he also knows that most of the murderers passing through the juvenile justice system didn’t go bad the day they hit junior high. “Parenting is a learned skill,” he said. “Control starts early. If you lose it early, there’s no reasserting it.”

Break Up the Home

Research shows society has more luck helping bad families become functional than it does with helping rotten kids become good ones.

“The knee-jerk reaction (when a child gets out of control) is to break up the home,” Forsythe said. “Got a problem kid? Send him somewhere. But that usually makes the kid worse. At a minimum, you destroy the laboratory in which the child and parents can learn to solve the problem. They can’t learn to deal with the rebellious teen-ager if the son or daughter isn’t there.”

Forsythe’s foundation, like others nationwide, is now spending money on “family preservation” programs with names such as Homebuilders, in which therapists are sent into “high-risk” homes, where they devote as much as 20 hours a week to family therapy and educating parents and kids on everything from getting the water turned back on to dealing with anger.

Three counties in Northern California now are engaged in a similar, two-year pilot program that diverts money from traditional programs to family-preservation projects, which try to keep kids with their families through 24-hour in-home crisis intervention, family therapy and parent training.


None of which will do much good, experts say, unless society begins to support the sort of behavior that parental education teaches.

“We teach children through all of the messages we send,” said Hamburg, of the Committee for Economic Development.

Cultural Loss

Judging from what business leaders reported seeing in the emerging work force, many kids have somehow learned that in this culture “we don’t value teamwork, don’t value compassion,” she said.

Society also doesn’t instill self-worth and pride in doing a job well, Hamburg said: “You can’t send teachers to the blackboard to teach values. They come from the way we behave.”

Martin, at Juvenile Hall, observed: “Adolescence is an incredibly difficult time.” And when a kid runs into the normal physical and emotional stresses of adolescence unprotected by a shield of values, his reaction may prove particularly ugly.

Yet Martin finds herself confronted with more and more teen-agers who never had structure in their lives, who were never told that some things are right and some things are wrong and who never were told “something as corny as the principle, ‘Do unto others,’ ” she said.


Outside her office, some of those kids, their faces scrubbed, their institutional clothing neatly pressed, lined up and walked in loose formation through the landscaped courtyard. For some of them, it may be the first and last time they are under control.