Marty Beyer, Ph.D.

    "My uncle says I was born dead," commented James, a 15-year old drug dealer.  He ignored the judge's well-intentioned admonishments at his disposition hearing.  Defense counsel had argued for community placement, but the judge sent him to an institution because he had not attended school for nearly a year and his mother was a substance abuser. James did not seem to care about being locked up.  Born to a teenage mother, he lives on welfare in a public housing project described in the newspapers as "dilapidated, dangerous and drug-infested."  James is convinced that he can never escape poverty. "My uncle says I'll die in the project where I was born, so I might as well get the most I can today and take the falls when they come."

    James does not believe in rehabilitation.   The educational and vocational programs at the institution hold no promise for him.  He is reading at the fifth grade level and is ineligible for the high school equivalency course.  He knows that the institution's limited vocational training will not get him a job at better than the minimum wage.  James plans to sell drugs when he is released from the institution--it is the only entry level job where his lack of skills does not disqualify him.  He can have clothes he is proud of and can augment the welfare check his mother and three siblings barely survive on.

    James does not look ahead when he faces adult prison.  Three years is a long time.  He might not live that long.  His uncle's philosophy offers him the only way to tolerate his life: since things could be no worse, he has nothing to lose by getting what he can today.  He sees three generations living in one public housing apartment.  His young uncle is in jail, and another was killed.  He does not know anyone who has escaped poverty.  James was born dead--he never had a future.

    James does not want what we think he needs. James' futurelessness challenges our assumptions about rehabilitation and the foundations of the juvenile justice system.  Whether it is vocational training or counseling, good treatment consists of helping a person achieve his/her plan.  Many delinquents have no plan. Traditional rehabilitative strategies cannot reach young people who are born dead.

    Rehabilitation requires two elements: the means and the desire.  The court can provide the authority and funding for rehabilitation, which is not available from the family or school.  But we have assumed that delinquents would have the desire to improve their lives.  Instead, many of them feel too hopeless to believe a better life is possible.  The judge cannot order James to be motivated.

    James does not have an antisocial personality disorder.  He knows right from wrong, and taking responsibility for his mother is a demonstration of these values. He thinks robbing people and burglarizing homes are criminal acts. Selling drugs, on the other hand, is his only way to survive.      

    How can anyone in the juvenile justice system--judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, probation officer, outside evaluator--help James and many delinquents like him?  Do we believe that they have futures any better than their pasts?  Do we believe that rehabilitative services can offer them access to noncriminal lifestyles? Have we seen service providers enable youth like James to give up their victim mentality, go after better lives for themselves, and succeed despite the obstacles?  To understand how we can reach born dead youth, we must examine what they want, what they need, and how they can be empowered to get their needs met.



    Our first problem is that James may not be able to make an informed judgment about what he wants. He has little experience, all of which supports the conclusions that life holds nothing more than oppression.  Since early childhood, he has focused on day-to-day survival.  His wants are immediate: food, shelter, clothing.  He has one long-range wish: to have a lot of money, but he knows he is unlikely to achieve it. He has no intermediate wants: he has had no reason to plan or take steps to reach goals beyond survival.

    We face a difficult dilemma: should we substitute our own views about his entitlement for James' missing wants?  For example, James does not believe he will ever be much of a reader.  He has compensated by getting through life primarily on what he hears.  He has managed to sell drugs without writing or reading.  He says he does not want to attend school, that he does not believe school will strengthen his reading, and that improved reading would not get him a good job. We think he is entitled to a free education designed to overcome his learning difficulties and provide him with reading skills. We believe he has no hope for employment without being able to read well.  Should we advocate that James be given the education to which he is entitled?  Surely he would only attend an educational/ vocational program if it gave him something he wanted.  What should we do about James not wanting what is best for himself?

    Class and cultural differences make this dilemma particularly painful.  James may not want anything different than he sees around him.  He has the expectation that he will die in the housing project where he was born.  Professionals in the juvenile justice system may find it unimaginable that James would not want a "better" lifestyle. For him, a gold necklace or making his mother's rent payment are obvious immediate goals. He enriches their lives in the context of unchangeable poverty. From another value system we might urge him not to splurge today but to save his money for a real escape from poverty. What should we do about James not wanting what is best for himself?

    Another example of these value differences is the assessment of the impact of his mother's substance abuse on James.  He is a devoted son and does not criticize his mother's behavior.  Our standards may dictate that a good mother cannot be a substance abuser.  These standards would call for James to move from the institution to a group home and into independent living to avoid returning to his destructive mother.  James would say this separation is not in his best interest, even though he knows his mother is likely to continue being a substance abuser.To what extent should we substitute our judgment about his entitlement to more nurturing parenting for James' simple desire to be at home? Can anyone assess the damage to James from his mother's inattentiveness because of her substance abuse as compared to the damage to James from being separated from the most significant person in his life?  If we step outside of class and cultural differences, we can see that James' mother is his lifeline. Nevertheless, his desire to return home appears to guarantee that he will be permanently stuck in poverty. What should we do about James not wanting what is best for himself?



    Despite unresolved class and cultural differences in standards of education, family life and mental health, most of us find ourselves at some point advocating the child's basic entitlements.  How do we know that we have assessed these needs correctly?  The psychological evaluation concludes that "James is a depressed youth with low self-esteem and little impulse control who fantasizes about a father he has seldom seen."  What do we do with this assessment?  Some may dismiss it as irrelevant psycho-babble.  Others see it as stating the obvious, without any prescriptions for change.  "Of course he is discouraged--how do you raise the self-esteem of a 15-year old reading at the fifth grade level?"  Others view it as a statement of emotional disturbance and ask, "Is James so out-of-control that he could become dangerous?"

    An added problem is that our assessment of needs is influenced by the limited availability and effectiveness of many treatment approaches.  We believe the school system will not offer James a stimulating remedial program, so why go the trouble of assessing his academic needs precisely?  We believe that traditional psychotherapy is not successful with delinquents, so why bother understanding his emotional needs?  We believe there are no services that can effectively help his mother provide more nurturance, so why itemize his family needs?  Needs assessment brings us up against the overwhelming poverty of our clients. Preparing for disposition is painful for many juvenile justice practitioners because we believe that poverty and its devastating impact during early childhood cannot be remedied through rehabilitative programs.  

    In addition, we have to face the real dangers in imposing our values on James as we help him identify his needs. Informed by our own experiences as children and parents, we have personal beliefs about what is best in families. It is difficult to separate our knowledge from these beliefs.

    Nevertheless, it is possible to prescribe techniques that would alleviate James' reading problem or his depression. It takes courage to identify specifically what James needs, in the context of different values, traditional services which do not employ these techniques and a client who does not recognize his own needs.



    We believe that empowerment is an activity for community organizers, not juvenile justice professionals. Nothing in our training prepares us for helping clients recognize their needs and become motivated to take steps to get them met. When they show the initiative to address their poverty through lucrative illegal activities, we feel embarrassed because we can neither accept their actions nor defend the welfare system that drives them to criminality.

    Underneath James' so-called resistance to treatment are feelings that make the process of empowerment even more complicated.  Although seldom recognized, aspirations are intrinsically disloyal.  Wanting to better themselves usually makes children feel guilty.  Children must have family encouragement to be able to achieve more than their parents. James' evaluation should say, "James is immobilized by guilt because he wants to escape the poverty that surrounds him.  He chooses to participate in the illegal economy not only because it is familiar, but because it allows him to enjoy having money without being disloyal or leaving home."  When we attempt to get James to recognize his need for better reading skills, we are asking him to look down on his mother who reads no better than he does.  When we attempt to get James to recognize his need for a good vocational program, we are asking him to look down on his mother and father who have never been employed.  James' mother loves him, but she is powerless herself and has been unable to shield him from the damage of poverty. James is very protective of his mother, in part because of her vulnerability but also because of his unacknowledged disappointment in her for not having been able to care for him better. Disloyalty is intolerable for children, and particularly for those who see their parents as victims.  It is emotionally easier for James not to have a future himself than to want to be better than his mother.



1. Take on empowerment as our primary job.

    Getting to the point of being able to advocate what our client wants ought to consume most of our work with delinquents.  Our most important role is enabling the young person to make a serious assessment of his/her life. We teach the young person how to want something for him/herself.  This is especially difficult for youth who believe they have no future--their lifelong pessimism makes them unable to imagine that they could choose another course for them-selves.  We teach the young person about their guilt at wanting to be better than their family. In the process, we must be aware of class and cultural differences and not impose our standards. We teach them about what it will take for them to get something they want. This requires our encouragement and recognition of small steps they take toward what may be their first intermediate goal.

    Taking on empowerment as our primary job with James would involve an ongoing dialogue:

  • Talking about his born dead perspective.
  • Talking about the disloyalty of wanting to achieve more than his parents.
  • Helping him uncover one thing he is good at and getting him into a program where he can be successful.
  • Helping him develop a positive, realistic picture of himself in the future doing what he is good at.


This is a tricky dialogue for us.  We must be careful not to make James feel we disapprove of him, especially since our starting point is that the born dead perspective is understandable but not acceptable.  The planning process accomplished by this dialogue is not culture- or class-bound: we can support James to want something and to plan for his own goals, which are likely to be different from goals we would choose for him. We must explore these differences and give him explicit permission to pursue what he wants for himself, not for our approval. We have to learn the role of nurturing and non-controlling teacher, aware that he will be hurt by his own failures and the pessimism of "helpers" along the way. Being born dead is a way of life and is not easily discarded. For a long time, the promise of a future goal will not be as sustaining by itself for born dead youth as similar goals might be for more advantaged adolescents.


2. Make the needs assessment process work for empowerment.

    Instead of teaching our clients about what they want, we spend most of our time doing others' jobs.  Mental health evaluations are not prescriptive, so we have to search out appropriate services, make referrals, and write detailed service plans.  James' neighborhood junior high school will not accept him back, and we have to advocate for him through the complicated special education eligibility and placement process.  

    It is essential to have a needs assessment process that does something for clients, that enables them to want what they need. First, we must educate evaluators about the born dead perspective. Second, we must ask evaluators to challenge the pessimism of young people without being judgmental or denying the reality of their exclusion from the mainstream.  Evaluators can discuss what they observe with the young person and teach them about having a plan for themselves. Evaluators can talk with the young person about a small step he/she might take to achieve a reasonable intermediate goal. Third, we must ask evaluators to write prescriptive reports which define specifically for service providers how they can support the young person's development of a reasonable plan for him/herself.

    Youth who are born dead require a different needs assessment process by evaluators who are aware of their own biases. Evaluators with a fresh orientation may be able to work more effectively with these youth than those who have provided court-ordered assessments of delinquents for years. Regular discussions should occur among evaluators, service providers, attorneys and others in the juvenile justice system to refine our efforts to reach these young people more skillfully than we have in the past.


3. Demand more of the service system.

    Once we have identified our clients' needs, invariably the service system fails us.  There are no in-home support services for James' mother, despite her repeated failures in outpatient drug counseling.  There is no mental health professional skilled at helping James with his kind of guilt or longing for his father. Probation and many community programs offer young people very little concrete support.  They are based on the incorrect assumption that the court will make youth change in their lives. These programs work for the motivated minority, which unfortunately reinforces the widespread belief among service providers that only a handful of delinquents can be expected to "make it."

    These assumptions are not acceptable. Probation and other programs for youth must be motivational. They must be designed with the recognition that youth who feel hopeless need assistance to want something for themselves before they will be able to take any steps toward being rehabilitated. These programs cannot be allowed to continue to blame the born dead victim. James does not have a "bad attitude" nor is he "resistant" to treatment. Services must meet delinquent youth where they are. We may think they should be "ready to pull themselves up," but they believe they have no chance for better futures.

    Instead of allowing programs to assume that entering delinquents will be self-directed, we must demand that rehabilitative services become motivational. Motivational programs have three components:


        • SUCCESS

            Youth must be able to experience immediate success. Conditions like "attend school daily" or urine surveillance build failure, not success, into the program. Many service providers would say that because James has earned money selling drugs, he is unlikely to be satisfied with success in a legal vocation. In fact, real obstacles to delinquents experiencing success in programs include: (a) Limited exposure--James knows very little about other jobs; (b) Limited skills--James has only felt competent selling drugs; (c) Pessimism--James cannot picture himself as successful; and (d) Belief in money as the only goal--James thinks the purpose of work is to earn as much money as possible. He has not seen work as fulfilling in other ways. He sees no reason to start at the bottom; he wants the status of immediate monetary returns from his work. Each of these obstacles must be addressed by a motivational program that is designed to guarantee success for each participant.

    For example, as part of a motivational program, an educational advocate could help James use his selling skills. First, he could be placed in a marketing program capitalizing on his vocational strengths.  Second, he needs a remedial program taught by teachers who can help him apply his auditory abilities to improving his reading and math skills. Third, he needs a paid job associated with his marketing program which he can see leading to a promising future.



            Motivational programs are based on a strong philosophy which challenges the born dead perspective. Using the principles of therapeutic communities, residential and non-residential motivational programs surround the young person with new values and examples of youth who have applied these values successfully. Youth can be taught to want something for themselves through individual and group instruction.



            Parent involvement is missing from most delinquency programs.  Youth cannot be rehabilitated without their parents' approval.  Many service providers are pessimistic about "sending him right back where he came from."  Treatment programs are dominated by this anti-family bias: there is a widespread belief among do-gooders that poor families are bad families, failing to provide sufficient nurturance or positive direction.  But children view their families protectively. The born dead perspective can only be discarded when the young person does not have to use it to shield parents from his/her disapproval of wanting to surpass them.  Parents must be involved in rehabilitation programs to give permission to youth to have aspirations. James needs help to appreciate the nurturance he has received at home, as well as accepting its limitations and getting them remedied by service providers. James' mother needs respect for what she has given him, as well as encouragement to allow James to reach out to others for more. Although rarely aware of it, parents, when offered information, readily learn about the impact of their disappointed lives on their children's aspirations. While her own life may change very little, James' mother must let him know that she will not feel judged by his aspirations and that she wants him to read better than she does and be legally employed.

    In addition, neighborhood involvement from the same motivational philosophy is an essential ingredient of rehabilitation.  The internal change the program can spark in a young person must be supported by a community network of people who help youth in the application of their new values.  Perhaps the most promising programs are those offering young people success opportunities while transforming their own neighbor-hoods--they achieve promising futures without having to move away from their families and community.


    Youth who are born dead may be in the majority in juvenile justice systems. They present a depressing picture: they have no hope for the future, so court involvement cannot motivate them to change their lives. These young people do not want what we think they need.  Because they feel so hopeless, rehabilitation programs must be motivational.  Young people must be taught to want something for themselves. We must empower them with a positive view of themselves in the future.  Their parents must give them permission to aspire to more than what their families have achieved. Programs must offer them immediate success, as well as neighborhood support for their new goals. It is our responsibility to go beyond standard assessment techniques and traditional rehabilitation to reach youth who are born dead.



Beyer, Marty (1988). "Born Dead, " Children and the Law.  American Bar Association.