By Mannix Porterfield
Two generations ago, a youngster whiled away free hours by swapping baseball cards bearing the sweet scent of bubble gum, mowing lawns for movie fare, or joining cronies in a pickup game on a vacant lot.
Welcome to the 21st century.
Gone is the age of innocence, overtaken by disaffected youth popping pills, taunting classmates, trashing his parents’ car with a baseball bat, and engaging in thievery, unconcerned about the consequences that an anti-social lifestyle produces.
Until, that is, that same youngster visits a jail and sees what life is like behind the cold, steel doors of a cell.
Shock value is only momentary, however, in what has become known as “Scared Straight,” for there is a second part of a program that Twila Cooper is directing. The other half of the title is “After Care Program.”
A criminal justice major at Mountain State University, the Mount Hope resident became involved with children and readily saw a need for some adult intervention.
“I saw a lot of troubled kids,” she said.
“This is 2012. It’s not 1964 any more. These children are having issues. There are some very serious issues in the homes for a lot of these children. We’re seeing a lot of drug activity at a young age. A lot of them are suffering from grief because of the dysfunction, a divorce, or just complete chaos in the home. Some have learning disabilities. Some have anger management because of situations and they don’t know how to express it.”
For others, hunger is a constant problem. Or food allergies might trigger acting out, she says, often masked as attention deficit disorder.
“That’s what After Care is all about,” she says.
Cooper learned right off the bat that juvenile counseling programs are few and far between, so, working strictly as an unpaid volunteer, she embarked on a program to turn lives around.
What she saw immediately is that children have run afoul of the law, including 11-year-olds caught in credit card fraud.
“A lot of these children are in single-parent homes and the parents don’t know what to do,” Cooper says.
“They have to work. They take a position at night, thinking the kids will be in bed asleep. Those children are actually selling drugs at night and running the streets. Mom comes home and she’s tired, or Dad, and they don’t know what to do. Then they find this program and say, ‘We didn’t know where to go.’ What we’re able to do is provide a safety net. You can’t just send children through ‘Scared Straight’ and leave them. That doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Unlike similar efforts elsewhere, her version of “Scared Straight” isn’t an in-your-face confrontation with inmates, but the men and women behind bars leave no doubts that life in an orange jumpsuit and shackles is hardly an enviable one.
“Just the fact of going into jail is scary,” she says, “because it’s an adult facility.
“If you have never been in jail, it’s intimidating in itself. Nothing is made up. Nothing is concocted. We don’t have to do that. They give them the truth.”
In an eye-popping look at jail life, the youngsters see that no one enjoys any measure of freedom.
“It isn’t a vacation,” Cooper says.
“You’re told how you can dress. When you can sleep. When you can eat. You’re told how to wear your shirt, how not to wear it. How to wear your shoes. It’s a dangerous place.”
Cooper feels some on the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority missed the point in May interims when “Scared Straight” came under criticism. Two media accounts disparaged its value in discouraging crime. Cooper says the lawmakers need to take a long, hard look at what she considers the most important and in-depth part of the program, the actual work with troubled youngsters.
“This program isn’t going to work for every child,” she says. “We know that.”
On the other hand, she says “After Care” needs to network with similar efforts and umbrella each other so that children get the maximum assistance.
“These parents need parenting skills,” she says.
“They need coping skills. The children do, too. You may have to parent one child differently than you do the other children. We’re seeing incredible results.”
Success has raised the attention of police agencies, parole officers, and educators, all of them witness to the turnaround in young lives.
“This is all volunteer,” Cooper says. “I have no political gain. Nobody pays my gas. Nobody buys a folder, a pen, or puts in the hours that I do. I work this like a job. Every day, I’m talking to parents and trying to do my best with this After Care.”
Cooper says she has helped struggling parents from across West Virginia. She is reachable at email@example.com.
“Grades are turning around,” she says. “Children are turning around. Parents are ecstatic. They’re in high praise of this. It’s a relief to moms. We have single dads, too. Some dads have full custody, so they’re working, too, and don’t know what to do.”
Cooper pointed to a couple of brothers, ages 12 and 14, their cherubic faces belying a venture into the murky drug culture. While the mother was at work, the pair engaged in marijuana and prescription pills.
Admittedly, many kids are “acting out,” but Cooper says she explores the reasons behind this behavior and routes the youngsters to the proper counseling.
“It just doesn’t happen overnight,” she says.
At times, the children see their parents abuse drugs and from that a dangerous attitude develops, one that suggests a pill is a panacea for life’s ills.
“These children are babies,” she says.
“And it’s a very troublesome thing. This is why we need an extension of programs. We should be coming together with transparency and bipartisanship and working together and talking without being judgmental and saying, ‘Maybe there is something to this.’ I do eventually need a staff.”
Families have reached out to here from Marmet, Elkins, Charleston, and Princeton, to name a few locales.
“They have tried everything,” Cooper says. “They are broken-hearted and they are so relieved to have their children so supportive of this.”
Once children see the light of their errant ways, she says, there is an altered behavior and a new outlook on life itself.
“They run up and hug me,” she says.
“They say they love me. Their whole demeanor is just different. They tell me they are focused now and really, we get along great. You can’t fool a child. They know when you really care and they know when you’re just saying it. I want the very best for our children.”
A misconception is that such children are loners, simply unable to fit in.
“Some are like the class clown,” Cooper says.
“Some are very popular. You have them from every walk of life. Some come from a very impoverished background and some come from very wealthy backgrounds, and everything in between. Heartache and confusion don’t discriminate.”
Nor does Cooper hold to the belief shared by many that bullying is merely an age-old ritual that is both common and harmless schoolground fun.
“People think this bullying thing is ‘kids will be kids,’ and ‘they did it when I was growing up,’” she said.
“No, no, no. It’s totally different because you have all your technology. And you have children who will gang up on one because they don’t wear the right shoes, or don’t look right, or don’t act right. Maybe they’re smaller.”
One smallish boy grew weary of being stuffed inside trash cans and slammed into lockers, so one day he took a knife to campus, and the very presence of it was considered a threat, so he was put out of school, she said.
“We’re seeing an increase in girls who want to fight, fight, fight,” Cooper said.
“Girls will fight quicker than boys. They’re vicious. They make Youtube videos, go on Facebook. There’s no tolerance. It is constant. An all-day thing. You hear things about bullying. It is a serious thing. That’s why we have to get this counseling in and help these children. They can make fun of you depending on where you live, depending on whether Mom and Dad are divorced. They make fun of you because of how you dress, or the way you don’t dress. Or what type of glasses you have. How your hair is done. The least little thing, and they blow it up. And it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org