After slamming his fists into the wall until his knuckles dripped with blood, the raging teenage boy turned to a staff member and shoved him. The teen had recently been admitted to Youth Development Institute, a residential program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders in Phoenix, Arizona. Even the smallest incidents triggered his anger.
Years ago, the response would have been swift and physical: The boy would have been forced to the ground and restrained until he grew calm, which sometimes could take up to 45 minutes.
But this time, Sean Hennessey, a direct-care staff coordinator, stepped in front of another staff member, sending him out of the room before the conflict could escalate. Hennessey stood at the door with his head down, avoiding eye contact, and calmly spoke to the boy. When tears rolled down the boy’s face minutes later, Hennessey moved in and offered a reassuring side hug.
“It’s exhilarating when you’ve avoided a restraint,” Hennessey told ProPublica, recalling the incident. “Pinning a kid to the ground until they stop fighting and start crying, it’s barbaric if you think about it.”
Eight years ago, restraints occurred multiple times a day at Youth Development Institute. When children violently acted out, staff would hold them or even strap them down, and sometimes inject them with sedatives. Trish and David Cocoros, the directors of the program, said they hated relying on restraints, but assumed that if they stopped using them, more staff members and kids would get hurt.
Then, in 2012, the program changed course after an industry expert visited and discussed alternatives to restraints such as the approach Hennessey used. Now, the program averages less than one restraint a month. Youth Development Institute is part of a growing group of residential programs nationwide attempting to improve their work with children in key ways. Eliminating restraints is just one example. Many programs are shortening children’s stays, involving families more, and offering more rigorous classes.