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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Treatment home offers an oasis of hope for troubled teens

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Youthdale staffer Annik Scholz, a child and youth worker, leads the kids in the celebration of Sukkot at the Youthdale Jewish group home. For privacy reasons, only the backs of the residents are seen.

TORONTO — On a warm afternoon during Sukkot, a group of teenage boys and girls sat side by side in their beautifully decorated sukkah.

I listened attentively to a 12-year-old boy as he read prayers out loud in Hebrew and English. A girl, 16, shook the lulav and etrog together, while other young guests looked on.

After the little sukkah party, the group dispersed to do homework and household chores – a regular routine for the seven children living in a charming, old, five-bedroom house in downtown Toronto.

But this is no ordinary home. This is a treatment residence – believed to be the only Jewish treatment residence for adolescents in Ontario – run by Youthdale Treatment Centres, which provides comprehensive, integrated health services for troubled children and their families.

The children living in this Jewish house are aged 12 to 18. They are Jewish youth who all suffer from serious mental health and other problems, including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, Asperger syndrome, conduct disorders and eating disorders. Although each child’s particular difficulties are first apparent in the school environment, additional underlying issues usually become more evident once the child is placed in the care of the staff at Youthdale. Approximately 60 per cent of referrals to the four Youthdale treatment residences come through social agencies including Jewish Family & Child (JF&CS).

Established in 1996, this Jewish home is a residential treatment centre that incorporates religious observance and practice. The home is strictly kosher. Shabbat and the other Jewish holidays are all observed.

 “The children typically take three to six months to adjust to their new surroundings,” says Anna Quattrocci, residential supervisor of the Jewish home for 15 years.

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“We don’t really know what the problem is until we apply the holistic approach and perhaps see that there’s some sort of family dynamic that isn’t so helpful to the child.”

Quattrocci firmly believes that structure and routine are imperative in creating a secure and happy environment for the children.

“Kids respond so well to routines. Children find it comforting to live in this kind of predictable setting, as most of their family life has been extremely unpredictable.”

Although a child psychiatrist meets regularly with the children and consults to the treatment team, it’s also the ongoing informal treatment that occurs daily – developing a trusting relationship with staff and doing the household chores – that helps the children heal during their one- to five-year stay. For many children at Youthdale, routine also includes attending school at the Jerome D. Diamond Adolescent Centre, a day treatment centre run by JF&CS, or going to a public school that offers appropriate programs suited to their special needs.

Steve Gregory, residential director at Youthdale, credits the successes that the children experience at school and back at the home to the “ethical framework that Youthdale follows.

“Youthdale is a milieu treatment house. We work hard at bringing both the family and the individual child together. It’s often the first time the child is able to speak with their family.”

Gregory also knows that having the support of the Jewish community allows for an easier and quicker transition for the residents and their parents. “Parents are happy that traditions are in place, and the Jewish community really cares about what happens at the home.”

Rabbi Shmuel Spero of Anshei Minsk Synagogue has been very supportive of the Youthdale staff, as well as the children and their parents. With open arms, he welcomes these young people to his synagogue every Shabbat. The Jewish holidays and traditions observed in the house and at synagogue provide focus, learning and excitement.

The children I interviewed were eager to share their feelings about life at Youthdale. Danny, 12, likes to cook and loves to celebrate Chanukah at the house, while 16-year-old Shaina enjoys bowling, museum visits and building relationships with the staff. Ari, 17, who lacks a father figure in his life, said he appreciates the kindness and guidance of the staff.

Gregory proudly recounted the success stories of former residents who often go on to attend university or college. Many stay connected to the devoted staff at Youthdale and this welcoming old house that was once their home.

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