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Lifelines: A Voice in the Wilderness

C. Saphir

What do you know about Utah? If you’re like most frum people, probably very little. Unless you’re a parent of an at-risk child

Thursday, October 06, 2016

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W hat do you know about the state of Utah? If you’re like most frum people, probably very little. Maybe you can name Salt Lake City as the capital. Or maybe you’ve heard of the Utah Jazz. The Mormon Church headquarters. Bryce Canyon. Zion National Park.

But if you’re a parent of an at-risk child, Utah may actually mean something to you. This western state is dotted with hundreds of wilderness and residential rehabilitation programs for troubled youth. What makes Utah unique is that state law stipulates that parents can choose an educational program for their child — even against the child’s will. In New York or New Jersey, for instance, a child can decide that he doesn’t want to attend the school his parents sent him to — and the state’s social services department will support him. In Utah, if a child decides to leave school, the state police will bring him right back.

None of the rehab programs in Utah are Jewish; other than Chabad, there’s not much going on Jewishly in Utah. But a disproportionate number of kids in these Utah rehab programs are from frum families. I know. I sent my son there.

Danny was one of those kids who didn’t fit neatly into any label or category. He had some social issues, but he did not have Asperger’s. He had some behavioral issues, but he did not have ADHD. He had mild learning and processing issues, but he was very bright and articulate, and did not have any specific learning disability. The best label the professionals could slap him with was PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified), which, in his case, was a way of saying, “There’s something wrong with this kid, but we don’t know what it is.” We sent him for every sort of therapy imaginable, and put him on medication intermittently, but it was like bailing water out of a leaky boat — no matter what we tried, it was never enough.

Danny reserved his worst behavior for us, his family. In school, he managed to perform decently, despite his scholastic and social issues, but when he came home, he let it all out, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde style. Ironically, when adults first met him they would often comment on how mature and well-spoken he was. Since he behaved relatively well outside the house, my wife Shifra and I were convinced that we were the problem. We consulted with experts and went for parenting courses and therapy, but no matter how many skills we acquired, we felt helpless trying to deal with Danny.

In one of his angry fits, he crushed my hat. Other times, he flung my tefillin, his shoes, and a bread knife across the room. Within five minutes of his entering a room where one of his siblings was, the other child would be screaming. He would invade their personal space, interrupt their homework, speak to them in a mocking, annoying, or inappropriate way, and sometimes hurt them by playing too rough. Yet he never actually broke anything valuable or harmed anyone seriously, so there was always a measure of control in his actions. Afterward, he’d act as if nothing had happened, and he could not understand why others were avoiding him.

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