Helping Adolescents Flourish in Their Community


Every community needs to grasp that sending a young person away or putting them into long-term group (congregate) care is a last resort only when there is a chance of imminent harm. The harm done (and cost involved) in sending a young person away to congregate care, far outweighs the benefits and cost-effectiveness of supporting the young person to stay in their community. In its report on Rightsizing Congregate Care, the Annie E. Casey Foundation states, “Data indicated an over-reliance on congregate care was damaging children, yet the state had an entrenched congregate care provider community.”1

As to costs, the Casey Foundation states, “Institutional placements are three to five times the cost of family-based placements.”2

In those rare times when it is necessary to send a young person into care, the community is obligated to do everything to create the outcomes and environment for that youth to return as soon as possible. Losing a youth to any means—whether it is violence to self or others, dysfunction or depression—must be seen as a community failure and not just the young person. In truth, young people don’t fail us, we fail them. The community must also be fully committed to providing an opportunity for each child to flourish. This is the ultimate test of a community's health, how it treats its most vulnerable people and, in particular, its most vulnerable children. 


The Search Institute of Minneapolis, MN has identified 40 characteristics of a healthy community for young people broken down into external and internal assets. The categories include


  1. Support
  2. Empowerment
  3. Boundaries and Expectations
  4. Constructive Use of Time


  1. Commitment to Learning
  2. Positive Values
  3. Social Competencies
  4. Positive Identity

The detailed list is broken down by age groups, other age groups include 3-5, 5-9, 8-12 and 12-18.3 


Why Do We Offload Kids?

The primary reason we send young people away from our schools and communities is non-compliance. Even in the Youth Justice Act of Canada, the emphasis is what adults can do to youth if they fail to comply. “If the young person fails to comply…”4

Where is the adult responsibility in this act? What if the act read, “If the adult fails to engage…”

It is the responsibility of every generation to engage the next generation in order to pass on its culture, education and values. When we don’t, “engage youth in…” we must “force kids to…”

Young people are quite capable of attaining very rigorous standards, but only when they are engaged in the process (when the process is relevant to them). The truth is, this is no different from adults. Adults and youth alike do not maintain rigor, if the hard work is irrelevant to them. The Gates Foundation states it like this, 

“The new three R’s, the basic building blocks of better high schools: 

  1. The first R is Rigor – making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work;
  2. The second R is Relevance – making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals; 
  3. The third R is Relationships – making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.5 

It is sad to say, but perhaps it is easier to “blame the victim” and send the young person away rather than confront our own inability to engage young people. We need to raise the banner of disengaged youth. Being disengaged or non-compliant, doesn’t mean you’re “bad,” it could mean you’re an “Original (according to Adam Grant)” or an “Outlier (according to Malcolm Gladwell).”

The question for every community should be, “How do we turn our disengaged youth into innovators and capture the entrepreneurial spirit within in their minds?”


1Right-Sizing Congregate Care may be found at, page 4, 5

2Right-Sizing Congregate Care may be found at, page 1

3The 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents (ages 12-18) may be found at

4The Youth Criminal Justice Act may be found at, page 6

5The Gates Foundation Speech to the National Education Summit on High Schools may be found at, page 5


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