Cindy Babcock (not her real name) is what you would call a "privileged kid." Pretty, intelligent, from an intact, middle-class family, she grew up in a comfortable Northwest Washington neighborhood and seemed destined for a happy, cheerleading kind of adolescence. In other words, what Cindy had should have kept trouble away. It didn't.
About the age of 12, she started to hang around with other kids in her neighborhood who were older, drinking, taking drugs and cutting school. She began to drift away from her family, finally not coming home some nights, and--to her parents' alarm--edging closer to the courts as her reputation as a juvenile "beyond parental control" increased.
One winter night, Cindy woke up at Dupont Circle at midnight, alone and with no idea how she had gotten there. But she had obviously walked, in more ways than one, as far as she could go. Her parents put her in an inpatient therapy program at a private psychiatric hospital. Fortunately, they were well insured.
The Babcocks were billed a staggering $13,000 a month to keep Cindy there. While at the hospital, Cindy attended academic classes and took part in regular group therapy sessions (both with and without her parents), but during the eight months she was there she did not seem to get much further than learning to articulate what she thought her problems were.
Finally, the cost alone became reason enough to withdraw Cindy from the program. Although she continued for awhile to be part of the hospital's outpatient program, nothing solid seemed to have been gained.
Now 15 and back home, Cindy went back to her old crowd and habits, cutting school, staying out all night and forging her mother's checks when she ran out of cash. Then, because of a chance suggestion from a D.C. social worker who handled Cindy's case (she was labeled a "special education" problem, eligible for a tuition grant from the D.C. public schools) the Babcocks grabbed at a last straw.
"What are your illusions about a placement for Cindy?" asked social worker Ross Troublefield. "Are you thinking swimming pools and tennis courts?"
"Absolutely not," replied her mother.
"Well," said Troublefield, "there is a program that might work. But it's primitive, Mrs. Babcock, it's primitive."
"So is Cindy," replied her mother.
What Troublefield was referring to were the FLOC Wilderness Schools in Strasburg, Va., and Harpers Ferry, W. Va. The FLOC schools, like several similar schools across the country (most of which are not aware of each other) has been quietly reversing the odds in favor of children like Cindy who, for various reasons, have lost the will to thrive.
Modeled after the successful Dallas Salesmanship Club Camps founded by Campbell Loughmiller in Texas in 1948, the regimen prescribed by FLOC (For the Love of Children) is as tough as the kids its workers are committed to salvaging. Taking youngsters whose histories and emotions are as tangled as the root floor of a forest, they put them into the wilderness, which silently challenges their instinct for survival at every turn.
"The program," wrote Loughmiller in his camp manual Wilderness Road, "originates right out of the requirments for living--food, shelter and recreation. It is not so much a program they carry out as a life they lead."
In a camp manual, this philosophy sounds attractively bucolic and therapeutic--a "fresh air camp" for troubled kids who return to society pink- cheeked and restored. Many do, but the harsh realities of a winter on Signal Knob mountain, where a strong wind can tear a loosely anchored tarp off a tent, is a bit of reality that these sidewalk-oriented children have not experienced. And if the wood isn't chopped, the stoves that heat their sleeping tents aren't warm.
It is, however, these close connections between cause and effect ("Experi- ence encourages thoroughness," explained Loughmiller) that FLOC hammers into kids who have never taken responsibility for their survival before. And, in the process, the students take responsibility for each other. Survival is a balance between individuality and dependence. If the group goes off the track, everyone suffers. Conversely, if the group is in accord, the wilderness is temporarily tamed.
The entrance to the girls' school is an unpaved road that winds up the mountain for a half-mile and dead-ends into a small wooden administration building. A collection of aluminum canoes is stacked on holders in the driveway. A Korean War vintage Red Cross truck is parked to one side. Through the trees, one can perceive several log- tarp tepees carved into the shank of Signal Knob.
Inside the administration building is a small reception area, a spotless country kitchen with a Vulcan stove, several fill-in-the-number oil paintings of kittens, a pair of crocheted potholders and two motherly sisters from the Strasburg area who are packing up breakfast to be hauled up the mountain to the "Shenandoah" group of girls, who are still on their campsite in a "huddle-up."
Ordinarily the campers eat breakfast five days a week in the main dining room. But they have just returned from a weekend of home leave. There were problems to solve that delayed their trip down the hill.
The assistant director of the school, Bob Griffin, was in the dining room eating breakfast by himself. A gentle, grinning Alan Alda type, Griffin wasn't surprised that the girls came back with problems. "The kids," he said, "have trouble talking to their parents when they're home. They tend to retreat by watching TV or going out on the streets. Then when they come back, they vent this frustration on the counselors. Eventually they do start talking to their parents. Then they're ready to go home for good."
The wind tearing around the mountain made the aluminum sheeting on the dining room roof rumble like logs rolling across the sky. Inside, it was warm. The heating stove, made from an oil drum, gave off plenty of warmth. Several tables covered with oilcloth and topped with paper flowers in vases were arranged in the middle of the room. A piano and several shelves full of board games and books were against the walls. On a blackboard was the message: "Welcome home, Shenandoahs. We love you! The staff."
Meanwhile, the Shenandoahs were huddled in one of the sleeping tents with Donna Minter, their 23-year-old counselor, who was wearing a pronounced black eye. Before "Homes Day" one of the girls had punched Minter without any warning.
The problem that had upset the Shenandoahs this day revolved around a girl who was in another tent resting. She had come back from home with a hurt knee. Minter had not been sympathetic. When Suzi (her name, like all the campers' names, has been changed) had asked for help, the other girls thought Minter had not responded fast enough. In what is actually an unusual reversal of the usual roles the counselors play with the girls, it was the Shenandoahs who were extending themselves to their leader.
"I'm sorry," said Minter, "it's been at you all's expense. I haven't been listening to you all. I didn't feel like I wanted to care for Suzi . . . I was just wrapped up in my own stuff, and I should have said that I was hurting in another way."
Sitting on one of the mattress-covered metal cots, Minter looked as young and vulnerable as the girls themselves. The wind tore at the plastic sheeting. The oil drum stove needed more wood. But the girls, dressed in the standard school dress of work boots, jeans and heavy jackets with hoods, huddled around the stove and continued to thrash out their feelings. Several had their arms around each other's shoulders. Minter was protectively holding one of the younger girls with one arm.
A curly-haid if the wood isn't chopped, the stoves that heat their sleeping tentred girl in a ski parka interjected: "All the group is asking for is to be given a chance to help you out."
"It's not that you don't listen, Chief Donna," said Georgia, a 16-year-old black girl who has been with FLOC for five months. "But it's like you got to see both points of view. Like if you get on me for cussing, but don't see that this big old tree is standing on my leg while I'm cussing, you're not understanding where I'm coming from."
"I'm cold," whined another girl. "I want to have breakfast."
"Shut up, Rosie," said Georgia. She leaned forward. "Was some of the stuff you was feeling about your eye?" (She was the girl who had punched Minter.)
Minter nodded. "But when I spent the night alone on Signal Knob when you all were gone on Homes Day, I came down with a real peace about it."
"Hey, Chief Donna," said the girl who was whining for breakfast. "Be yourself, be in the group, but don't go overboard with your job, you know."
"Just because you're a chief, you can still be a friend," said someone else.
"Oh yeah" mocked Georgia. "If she be a friend, we'll never get our goals done." Everybody started to laugh.
The tension had been broken. A path had been cut through confusion that had knocked the Shenandoahs off the track.
That morning was an unusually tough one. Spring had begun to warm up the camp site when a strong blast of old winter air had practically blown one of the tents off its moorings. Back from Homes Day with frustrations to vent, the girls were unprepared for lashing the tent poles, reconstructing the cooking pavilion --its top had blown off--and looking for tears in tarps that covered the sleeping tents. The counselors, who live 24 hours a day, five days a week with the girls (they relieve each other on weekends) had a lot to deal with that morning. But within moments of settling the underlying causes of the irritation, Georgia was dumping Rosie out of her sleeping bag. Counselor Ramona Price had Rosie on her shoulders. Rosie was winding twine around a tent pole. Other girls were collecting logs or laying out breakfast. Peace had been restored.
The director of both FLOC schools is Fred Taylor, a soft-spoken, former Baptist minister affiliated with the Church of the Saviour in Washington, which provided the original seed money and staff for the operation. Sitting in the FLOC offices (in the Church of the Saviour building), Taylor explained how he got into the troubled kid business. "I couldn't get a certain line from Genesis--'Go out into the land and I will show you'--out of my head. Finally, Gordon Cosby (the pastor of the Church of the Saviour) said, 'You'd better pay attention to those voices. They mean something.'"
Taylor, who headed the ministers' consortium in the mid-1960s that banded together to force the closing of Junior Village and the founding of a foster home program that took its place, looked around for a solution. He discovered Campbell Loughmiller's model, found two people to lease him land in Strasburg and Harpers Ferry, and in 1972 established the first school-- for boys. In 1980, after the boys' school was moved to Harpers Ferry, he started the school for girls.
"We work best," said Taylor, "with kids who are considered 'beyond parental control,' who have been charged with borderline acts, like shoplifting, running away or not abiding by parental rules." The schools do take on much tougher cases than these. A high percentage of the kids have stolen cars, been charged with violent acts or flunked out of various foster homes, which led them, as a last resort, to FLOC, the Washington area's newest-- and to some, most debatable-- approach to juvenile rehabilitation.
"I personally," said Karl Banks, Acting Chief of Residential Placement at the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services, "am not enamored with the program. After visiting the boys' school, I would not place my child or any child I know there."
Banks was asked why.
A trim, immaculathe wood isn't chopped, the stoves that heat their sleeping tenttely groomed man in his 30s, Banks had four framed photographs of his handsome, bow-tied children on his desk. "Maybe I'm spoiled and like the indoors too much," he said. "But the tents were dark. Nobody could pretend that it was possible to do any studying. And FLOC has a mandate that the staff not have any kind of professional teachers, psychiatrists, social workers or medical personnel there."
Banks is right. FLOC, whic is an accredited alternative to regular public schooling, does not conduct any formal instruction on site. The kids, nearly all of whom have been pronounced failures in school, are educated according to their need to know something, such as how to measure properly the dimensions of the tent they are constructing, in order to send away in a catalogue for the right size tarp. They cook at the camp two full days a week. They must order the food from price lists, read the menus and measure out the ingredients properly if the food is to be edible. Each child is given a checking account at a local bank (with $5 a month deposited by FLOC). Several times a month they have a Buyers' Day. They purchase, at reduced prices from the camp store, personal items they need and learn to make out checks. Toward the end of their stay, the girls are reintroduced to traditional schooling--books, tests and tutoring. By then emotionally moored, according to FLOC's theory, the kids are ready to exercise their intellects in more traditional, back- home ways.
As for psychiatrists, or professional therapists, FLOC employs none--on purpose. "Most of the kids," said Griffin, "have already gone the psychiatric testing route and failed. If a child can benefit from that kind of help, then he or she doesn't need to be here, and those are the ones we want to help." All FLOC counselors are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid. For anything more serious, they use the local hospitals. Griffin can recall two kids who had appendicitis attacks and another with a broken arm.
Banks was asked if he had asked any of the boys whether they liked it.
"They were very enthusiastic," he said. "But children who are wards of the District have very few options. They learn that to complain isn't going to get them anywhere."
Traditionally, when every other alternative has failed, society puts its chronic problem children away in institutions. Most of the FLOC kids have known the insides of one or more juvenile "lock-up," several foster homes and sometimes a mental institution. More than half the kids at the girls' Wilderness School are candidates for Cedar Knoll, which is the District of Columbia's residential treatment center for first-time offenders between the ages of 13 and 15.
Located on an old military base outside of Laurel, Md., Cedar Knoll is a collection of square-topped, red brick buildings that looks like a grim but efficient Marxist university. There is no litter and, at first glance, no population. But locked behind various class and "cottage" doors are (as of February) 110 children--chronic runaways, truants, shoplifters, muggers and even rapists who had run out of places to go. Forty of the kids were absent without leave, having skipped through the woods.
"It's a jail," said Audrey Rowe, commissioner of the social services commission at the Department of Human Serv- ices, which reluctantly continues to assign children there. "Everybody, including the staff, knows this." Sharon Harrell, acting assistant superintendent at Cedar Knoll, said, "I don't know how many minds and hearts are converted here."
"Recidivism at Cedar Knoll is high," said Rowe.
There are no frills at Cedar Knoll, but it has tile floors, is clean, well-lighted and warm. A large television set is anchored in each day room. The kids watch it but do little else. The cost to the taxpayer for this is high--$26,000 a year for each child.
Sometimes the District spends more than that to institutionalize troublemaking kids. Private institutions wood isn't chopped, the stoves that heat their sleeping tentacross the country take problem kids on a contract basis with government agencies. "We have sent kids to the Brown School in Texas, which costs $55,000 a year," Rowe said. "But the cost can be significantly higher than that once you factor in air fare and paid escorts where there aren't through flights."
Rowe, who is trying to get kids out of institutions and encourage private contracting with agencies like FLOC, or group homes, wants to bring all District wards back within a 75-mile radius of Washington. "When visiting several institutions where we had clients, we found children we didn't even know we were supporting, kids who weren't even on our rolls," he said.
Against these financial figures, FLOC charges $13,308 a year per child. Most of the money goes into staff (there is a ratio of one staff member to every two kids). Workers start at slightly more than $8,000 a year. The directors earn $15,000, but FLOC, which is dependent on District and state contracts to maintain its operation, has not been able to pay Evelyn Fowler, the girls' school head, her full salary yet.
Taylor wishes there were a way to make wilderness therapy affordable for ordinary families outside the court- order route. Unlike the Dallas Salesmanship Camps, which are financially backed by the Dallas sports and business community (the Dallas Cowboys give over the receipts from their first exhibition game), FLOC needs backing it doesn't yet have. But its success rate appears to mirror other wilderness schools.
"We haven't had the resources to get a study made," said Taylor. "It's important that we do this, although we know that the program works." Nationwide, wilderness schools (such as New Dominion School in Dillwyn, Va., a FLOC spin- off) have a 70 to 80 percent success with graduates. Success means the kids don't get in trouble again. Most return to their homes and pick up where they left off--with a difference. They return committed to their own change.
"There are three or four stages a kid goes through here," said Taylor. "The first is the honeymoon stage where the kids don't make too many waves and behave. Then in stage two the frustration sets in. They realize they're having to come up against sides of themselves they don't particularly like. The third stage is a movement back and forth between frustration and resolution. In the fourth stage, in the last two or three months of their stay (the average length of time with FLOC is about 14 months), the youngsters begin to trust the process--and the counselors." Because of the heavy emotional and physical demands placed upon the counselors, FLOC watches out for staff "burn-out." Normally they work a year.
The girls' school has had a severe runaway problem this winter, largely caused by one girl who often took one or more girls with her when she ran down the hill. That girl was finally asked to leave.
"We've had a lot of confusion this winter," said Fowler, who trained at Loughmiller's Dallas camps before becoming the girls' school director.
"If I had it to do over again," said Fowler, "I would have spent a lot of time doing public relations in the community, neglecting the school if I had to, just so we wouldn't get caught up working against people."
Sheriff Lynn Armentrout of Warren County, in whose jurisdiction the school is located, concurred. Alerted to the school's presence by the runaways, some of whom were picked up by his deputies, his first impressions (fortified by a visit to the school with a local newspaper reporter) were negative. The idea of girls living in the wilderness appalled him. Acknowledging that none of them were sick or ill fed, Armentrout nevertheless felt sorry for the girls, particularly over this last, extremely cold winter, and filed complaints with various Virginia child welfare people. The reports, when the Virginia authorities looked into the complaints, came back favorable to FLOC, with some reservations. Armentrout, who continually stretutions wood isn't chopped, the stoves that heat their sleeping tentssed that he wasn't out to close down FLOC, thinks changes should be made, particularly with regard to the wood pile. His deputies, sitting in the sheriff's office in Front Royal, agreed.
"We had the doctor from the mental health department in Richmond come up to visit FLOC," said Captain Donnie Deaver, "and I said, 'Did you go up there and spend the night?' He said, 'Hell no, it's too damn cold for me.'"
Two nights during the past winter, the counselors moved the girls down to the main administration building to spend the night. The rest of the winter, they slept in tents, warmed by wood stoves.
Armentrout is not without a sense of irony. "You know," he said, "we've got inmates in our local jail who get the best food, the best medical attention, live in heated quarters and have television and everything they want. I've gotten three law suits filed against me. They're still not happy."
For most of the kids at FLOC, the wilderness is an entirely new experience. A long time ago they lost their sense of play in the video arcade rooms, or in drugs. Part of the FLOC therapy revolves around recouping their natural ability to entertain themselves. On winter evenings, after showers, they gather around the dining room piano for sing-alongs or to play games. In warm weather, they canoe on the lake or play games in the meadow.
"You can see the change in 'em," said head cook, Juanita Breeden, who sometimes lets the campers into the kitchen to make popcorn or hot chocolate. "When they arrive they've turned so hard to love. But all these girls now get along with adults now. They all had a problem with authority when they came here."
Breeden, whose son, Greg, is the school service manager and whose sister, Judy Wallace, helps in the kitchen, is the school's unofficial grandmother.
There is, to the observer, an enormous quantity of gentleness and physical affection displayed at the school. It is not uncommon to see several girls ambush one of the group work supervisors, like Stu Werner, with several hugs. He throws his arms around them in return. The counselors don't raise their voices. Nor do they react with alarm when one of the girls blows up.
Cindy Babcock, who was the school's first graduate, arrived as hostile as the next kid. She knew her rights. She didn't know what anybody expected of her, but she wasn't --in her words--going to "do this s---," that is, chopping wood, hauling food up the mountain, skinning logs and all the other chores that keep the camp life going. She went on strike. To her surprise, so did everybody else. When one kid doesn't want to do his or her part, all the rest are prevented from doing theirs. The "huddle-up" technique of immediately solving problems is used --everybody goes to the logs to discuss what's happening. Peer pressure replaces authoritarian orders. Cindy Babcock learned that she was necessary--the first step to self-esteem.
"A lot of kids, when they get there, haven't even been responsible for themselves, let alone anybody else," said Cindy, looking back. "It hits you all of a sudden that what you do affects everybody else."
After Cindy left FLOC, she reenrolled in the 11th grade, attended classes and lived at home for three months. Then, inexplicably, dropped out, going to live in the neighborhood with a friend. It seems, to the adult observer, that she has put herself "on hold." Adamant against drugs and almost nostalgic about FLOC, which she felt was a positive experience, Cindy is idling her engine, waiting to see what she is going to do.
Fred Taylor has techniques for warding off frustration when kids he really cares about don't get right back on the track. "You just breathe deeply," he said. "Basically, you really love the kids and you get p----- as hell. But you realize that with these kids you are sowing seeds. You hope to lead them to experience themselves as responsible, competent people so they won't get seduced back. Cindy knows what it is to be responsis wood isn't chopped, the stoves that heat their sleeping tentble. She's got that in her mental picture now. She'll be all right."
Taylor, whom Yale Divinity School recently cited as a distinguished alumnus, remembers an old Kentucky mentor counseling him about going to Yale. "If you go, you'll never come back," he said, "not because you wouldn't be accepted, but because you will have changed."
"He was right," Taylor said.
Taylor and his staff hope the same thing for the kids they work with, that they will never go back. And, despite the program's growing pains, they feel the prognosis for most of the kids is good. "It's a long-distance run," said Taylor. "It's a long-distance run."