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Youth program focuses on treatment, not discipline

Jake doesn’t know where he would be today if he hadn’t gone to Watkins Mill Park Camp, but he thinks it saved his life.
Jake is a 17-year-old kid who is going through a program designed for troubled youth that focuses on rehabilitation and education rather than discipline.
The program is run by the Missouri Division of Youth Services and reflects what Ray County Juvenile Officer Mike McClure says is a change of philosophy over the last 20 years. McClure said the family of a child can be an iatrical part of the healing process, but they can also be the problem for the child.
“When you put a kid back into that setting, you’re setting them up to fail,” McClure said. “The problems the kid has may not be their problem.”
The program at Watkins Mill has been a focus of an ABC 20/20 report and is being modeled by other states. The success rates are high as well.
Jake is a perfect example of the type of kid that can be helped. His parents, up until he was about 8-years-old always pushed Jake to do well in School and made sure he was going down the right path. Then Jake said his parents began turning to alcohol and drugs. When Jake turned 14 his relationship with his father began to change from a father-son relationship to a friendship that involved drinking and drugs.
Jake said by the time 2008 rolled around he had not been involved in drinking and drugs.
Jake said by the time 2008 rolled around, he had not been in school for more than a year and was addicted to a painkiller. That led to a robbery of a pharmacy in Excelsior Springs last winter where Jake was caught by the law.
Jake said he soon realized after coming to Watkins Mill that he needed to get away from his family.
“I made a lot of excuses for my dad,” Jake said. “He was more worried about being caught than hurting me. I learned that all I can control is what I do.”
Kids that go to Watkins Mill generally spend somewhere between six and nine months. The kids wake up at the same time everyday, attend school and work through problems during therapy sessions that are both group and individual.
Youth Specialist Becky Cowsert is one of the oldest specialists that works with the kids. Most of the staff is made up of young adults not that far removed from college. Cowsert, who has two grown sons, said she enjoys the work because she likes to provide support to the kids. She said a child’s upbringing has everything to do with why they come to the camp.
“If they had the support they need, they might turn out differently,” she said.
Carol Thomas is also one of the more experienced specialists. She came back to Watkins Mill three years ago after leaving for several years to pursue other things. She said she missed being around the youth on a daily basis.
“I went to do something else and didn’t like it so I came back and started working with kids again,” she said.
Thomas said the kids in the program just need to be exposed to healthy relationships with adults.
“Some of our kids really aren’t that different – they’ve just made poor choices and they’ve ended up with us,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of common sense with these kids.”
Fortunately for Jake, an aunt and uncle have taken an interest in him and will take him in when he is ready to leave the facility.
Jake now wants to turn his life around and help others. He said he is thinking about attending college to pursue a degree in criminal justice.
“I don’t want to do it to arrest people and write tickets,” he said. “I want to do it to help people.”
Photo: Jake spends some time studying up on his science work during school at the Watkins Mill Youth Camp. Jake wants to work in law enforcement when he leaves. (Photo by Dennis Sharkey/The Daily News)

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