Counselors face challenges helping troubled teens

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(Host) Many in the town of Chittenden are asking themselves what more could have been done to prevent the shooting death earlier this month of a local selectman.

Police say Bernard Congdon’s 16-year-old son Aaron confessed to the crime. He now faces charges of first-degree murder.

VPR’s Nina Keck sat down with counselors from several Rutland area schools to talk about the challenges they face in helping troubled teens.

(Keck) Two psychologists, two guidance counselors and a high school social worker gather in a small conference room at Rutland High School.

While they work in different schools, the women all know each other and spend several minutes laughing and catching up.

When someone mentions Aaron Congdon, however, the mood changes instantly and the women grow quieter – more thoughtful.

No one in the room will talk specifically about Aaron Congdon, but they have a lot to say about the difficulties in helping troubled teenagers – especially those 16 or older.

(Nancy Ivey) “There’s a huge difference in our community between a 15-year-old and a 16-year- old. You and I know there’s no big difference, but for some reason that’s the cut off age when they’re looking at our 16 year olds as young adults.”

(Keck) That’s Nancy Ivey. She’s a social worker at Rutland High School who acts as a liaison between the school and families.

While the legal system can charge a 15-year-old who skips class with truancy, she says once a child turns 16, the courts no longer get involved.

(Ivey) “I have a family right now with 2 boys who are not attending school. One is 15; one is 17. The 17-year-old is not getting any services and there’s no big stink being made about him. He’s closer to being an adult. He needs more support around him now. But the 15-year-old is headed to court for a truancy charge, and maybe he’ll get some help to come to school. But again, once he turns 16, the state is not there to put that protective supervision in no matter if parents are asking for it or not.”

(Keck) Elizabeth Burrows, a guidance counselor at Barstow Elementary school in Chittenden, says age plays a role in how the Department of Children and Family Services react as well.

(Burrows) “Parents can call DCF and say, my child is out of control.’ But if they’re over 16, DCF is likely not to intervene. You can call the police, but unless a child is likely to hurt him or herself or someone else, they’re not likely to get involved.”

(Engles) “So it’s sort of a wait until the crisis happens-kind-of-mode and that’s not comfortable.”

(Keck) Suzanne Engles is a child psychologist with the Rutland City Schools. She says even when a crisis does occur, it still might not be enough.

(Engles) “So there may be a high level of need. But if a child isn’t meeting a criterion, like bottom 15% of their class, or being a victim of substantiated abuse or committing a chargeable offense, they may not qualify for services.”

(Keck) The women in the room nod their heads. There are so many dedicated people who want to help these kids, they say. But the obstacles can be daunting.

The child may not want help, or the child’s family may stand in the way.

The media send teens conflicting messages and today’s high tech, fast paced lifestyle can be isolating. Even the system itself, they admit, gets in the way.

(Knowles) “There are two Cs – communication and confidentiality. They fight with one another.”

(Keck) Janet Knowles is a child psychologist for the Rutland City schools.

(Knowles) “Often you might have a child who has had three or four run-ins with police, but nothing is ever ticketed. Then there’s a 4th event happens and it’s a bigger event that requires a lot more intervention. A child might be on juvenile probation and get into trouble in another incident and the probation officer never finds out about it because it was never ticketed or nobody knew the child was on probation. Unfortunately in today’s day of computers where you should be able to have all that information at your hand – you can’t because rights are protected.”

(Keck) For many troubled teens drugs and alcohol are part of the problem.

Meredith McCartney is a guidance counselor at Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon.

She says it can be incredibly frustrating for parents to find out there’s no way to force an older teen to get help. Only a judge a can do that – and only after a crime has been committed.

(McCartney) “You have a drug involved teen. They’re not thinking logically. They’re not going to be in a place to say, oh counseling sounds wonderful.’ They really don’t want to give up their drug of choice and they’re not thinking to the future about what it’s going to do. And you have some really wonderful parents out there in very difficult situation.”

(Keck) McCartney says she’d like to explore ways to make the local court diversion program available to teens before a crime is committed.

(McCartney) “I’d like to have families be able to say, My son or daughter is drug involved. I’m having a lot of trouble. They’re not showing up to school.’ and be able to present their case in a kind of community forum at court diversion and then maybe get some backing that’s more legal about making that counseling happen.”

(Keck) Case managers at Rutland’s Court Diversion program like the idea.

But they point out their program works because they have legal leverage.

If their participants don’t complete the diversion program – they have to face their criminal charges in court where they could end up with jail time and a permanent record.

If no crime has been committed – case workers say the program wouldn’t have the necessary teeth.

High School social worker, Nancy Ivey says she’d like there to be a group home available for troubled teens in Rutland.

(Ivey) “Where kids could stay in their community and be with their families but be in a safe setting and still maintain their friendships and come to school. As it is now, you have to go out of the community because Rutland doesn’t have any right in our county.”

(Keck) Would a group home or court diversion have helped Aaron Congdon?

We’ll never know.

But school administrators and those in the trenches, like Nancy Ivey, say more needs to be done to understand what older teens really need and what schools and the community can do to help them.

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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