When staff stay longer, a safer place: One program's success

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In a field where workers sometimes quit after days, staff members at Alternative Rehabilitation Communities stay for 12 to 15 years.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark lauded the Harrisburg agency's residential programs for dependent and delinquent youth, calling A.R.C. a model to follow.

"When you see the interactions with the girls and the staff, when they sit down and eat meals together," she said. "Some of those staff have been there since the day the program was created."

In some state-licensed residential facilities, workers restrain children often, using their hands to restrict a child's movement to stop the child from hurting himself or others. Such procedures, intended to protect, can end with scrapes, bruises or broken bones for youth and staff.

Partly because A.R.C. workers have so much experience, they rarely restrain the children in their care, Judge Clark said. With 130 to 135 residents -- some juveniles found delinquent of serious criminal charges -- A.R.C. averages about 1.5 restraints per month, said Daniel P. Elby, the organization's CEO.

In comparison, the monthly rate for agencies that joined a state initiative called the Sanctuary Model, a certification program, fell from 54.9 restraints per 100 youth in January 2008 to 44.9 per 100 youth in February.

Mr. Elby's organization is not Sanctuary-certified. But he is clear with potential staff members from the start, he said: "We tell people we are a hands-off agency. We do not put our hands on people."

"We don't call anybody names, we don't play the dozens," he said. "We don't do the teasing. All of that stuff is just destructive behavior."

Mr. Elby said the success of his agency "is not rocket science."

"It's the ability to build the relationships with students," he said. "I think a lot of that has to do with, we're very, very selective in who we hire."

Mr. Elby, who co-founded A.R.C. in 1975, reviews resumes himself, casting aside applicants who job hop. "It's just not stable for the program," he said.

Sometimes, he hires workers on a part-time basis, observing their performance before making a commitment.

"You look for people who have the empathy, who have the passion," Mr. Elby said.

"A lot of our staff people look like our students," he said. "When you initially have that trust, the kids, they kind of open up."

When youth join A.R.C. programs, a peer mentor helps them acclimate. Residents also go on bike rides often, Mr. Elby said: "These are teenagers. For them to sit and watch TV for two or three hours a day, it drives them crazy. You have to get them out and burn out that energy, or you're setting up for bad things to happen."

If something does happen, Mr. Elby reviews the incident, solicits a corrective plan from his staff and rejects any plan he believes is not sincere, he said.

"I tell people, this is my baby," Mr. Elby said. "I bore it, I birthed it, and I'm still -- as of 36 years -- passionately in love with it."


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