- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Charles was 10 when he went to the Oregon State Reform School - today known as MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. He was the right age for fourth or fifth grade, just a little guy, outgrowing his jeans every five weeks.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, he was labeled “incorrigible” in elaborate cursive inside an enormous bound book. His father died when he was very small, the record says, and his mother abandoned him to strangers.

She is labeled “fast” in the book.

Charles is one of many boys who landed in the reform school, which became the Oregon State Training School before moving from Salem to Woodburn and later being renamed MacLaren. In the beginning, only some were there for having committed a crime. Many were there because their families couldn’t, or wouldn’t, care for them.

MacLaren is scheduled to merge with Salem’s Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in the next year, and part of the process is a substantial renovation. Preparation for that has unearthed records going to back to the beginning of MacLaren, when it was the reform school and filled with boys like Charles who would likely be in foster care today.

The handwritten books that date back as far as 1891, the year the reform school opened, and tell a story that in many ways has not changed much in those 124 years.

The lives of many children take a wrong turn very early, and there has never been a perfect answer for how to fix what has gone wrong for them, not then and not now.

Some commit serious crimes, while others, like Charles, are simply “incorrigible.” Some come from good families, others from struggling families and a few that are barely families at all.

There is no one, solid answer for what to do for them. The system has changed, the custody situations have shifted, the policies have been revised over and over again, but MacLaren and the foster system are still full.

The story could be on the brink of change, however.

Experts say that technology now allows for an unprecedented ability to quantify these children’s experiences, and it could help answer the question of, “What do we do for them?”

When MacLaren began as the Oregon State Reform School in 1891, it fell under the purview of human services and was not considered a public safety institution in the way it is today. Although, plenty of boys were sent there for committing crimes.

Records show that between 1891 and 1942, there had been 4,331 boys in and out of the school.

By far the most common reason was “incorrigibility.” Ten-year-old Charles was one of 1,110 boys sent to the reform school for that reason during the first 50 years. (Meanwhile, 43 were “beyond parental control.)

Second to that was stealing, followed by larceny, burglary, car theft, delinquency, forgery, truancy, breaking and entering, and petty larceny.

Many boys were sent to the school for “crimes” that would be considered relatively innocuous today.

During those same 50 years, 20 boys were in for “fornication.” Sixty nine were there for “immorality,” eight for “obstruction of railroad tracks,” six for “drunkenness” and one each for “cigarette smoking,” ”masturbation,” ”associating with immoral persons,” ”homosexual perversion,” ”opening post office boxes,” ”overdrawing a bank account” and “riding a streetcar without fare.”

Some were clearly more serious. One boy was labeled a “progressive sadist,” and another was a “constitutional psychopath.” Four were in for “trespassing to kill.”

Records noted whether they could read and write (most could) and included information about their families and home lives. Today, MacLaren is full of teenagers and young men, but at its inception, it allowed boys as young as 8.

It also allowed corporal punishment in some situations, which would never be allowed today. It also included a full working farm and kept meticulous records on what was produced.

Many of the boys came from backgrounds that had not been easy. Many had moved repeatedly, sometimes between Oregon and the Midwest and back again. Many had parents who had left or died.

Fewer than half the boys accepted to the reform school in the 1940-42 biennium, for example, came from households with married biological parents.

Several had already been helped by a charity organization called the Boys & Girls Aid Society, based in Portland, and they typically came to the reform school when that situation was unsuccessful.

A boy named Walter, for example, went to the reform school after being in the aid society’s custody. His father had left, and his mother was a housekeeper, but he had been living with a farmer in Linn County.

His social condition and home environment were both listed as “bad.”

That was true of many of the boys. It was clear the people who ran the reform school believed they needed to be removed from their environments.

A different Charles, also 10, was taken from his mother and brought to the school because he was “incorrigible.” His mother had left his father and was leading a “disreputable life” in Dallas, according to the book.

Darling’s biography included a note that his mother drank.

Over the years, the kids haven’t changed that much, although the severity of the crimes that will send them to MacLaren has increased, said Oregon Youth Authority analyst Paul Bellaty.

The school was part of the child welfare system until 1995, so it has been very recent that only the most severe infractions will land a boy there, he said.

The “feeder system,” or the path children take before being sent to the school, has long been a source of study, Bellaty said.

It is only now, however, that analysts are beginning to be able to pinpoint exactly where a child needs intervention in order to change their trajectory through the system.

Sophisticated mathematical modeling allows analysts to collect data on what services kids have received and what risk factors they have experienced in order to show exactly what will help them and what is likely not to.

“To be honest, MacLaren can’t solve many problems,” Bellaty said. Kids need more available to them than just an institution.

The data can show which factors are associated with risk for criminal behavior or other negative outcomes, he said, and it can shed light on which kids need intervention early and which do not.

Poverty, for example, is not linked to negative outcomes on its own, he said. Children whose parents are on welfare are no more likely to commit a crime than other children, he said.

However, poverty combined with other factors - abuse, parental drug use, neglect, etc. - becomes a risk factor, Bellaty said. The reason behind the poverty is the ultimate question, not the simple act of not having enough money.

Dysfunctional behavior can become cyclical, he said. Families pass on poor decision-making and coping skills, he said, and they show up in the children. (This mirrors the original reform school’s mission to remove children from poor home environments.)

Data can help break the cycle, he said. It can show exactly where to intervene.

The children from 100 years ago look very similar on paper, Bellaty said, but the research being done today has changed what the adults in the system know and understand about the kids.

For example, the ACES, or “advanced childhood experiences,” rubric can be used to model how much trauma a child has experienced and how it might affect anything from behavior to school performance, Bellaty said.

The system will change substantially over the next decade as more data and modeling become available, he said.

Where the system once had one destination for all kids, a place they went based on an adult’s gut reaction to their “incorrigibility,” the system has changed.

“Now we’re using a lot of information to make decisions,” Bellaty said.

___

Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

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