A Village Made to Raise the Children
Patrick Lawler sounds every bit the corporate bigwig as he points to bar graphs illustrating his organization's success. "These are our 10 core indicators," he explains in his well-appointed office. Except Lawler isn't talking about sales and revenues, profit and loss. As the chief executive officer of Youth Villages, a nationally recognized nonprofit for emotionally and behaviorally troubled children, Lawler is counting far different data. Indeed, the statistic he calls his "top selling point" is a deeply human one: the status of children one year after their release from the program.
Employing a combination of business savvy and decades of experience in youth counseling, Lawler has built a program for the children others deem too difficult to handle. "We take the kids nobody wants," says Lawler, 51, explaining that the children, the majority of whom have been physically or sexually abused, arrive with problems ranging from eating disorders to severe developmental delays.
According to the statistics he monitors so carefully, his program is working: 80 percent of children who receive treatment from Youth Villages are still living at home, going to school, and doing well even two years after discharge. In contrast, up to 70 percent of children nationwide who have received treatment through government programs wind up returning to government care within one year of their release.
Because it is built around treatments that emphasize hard evidence of success, Lawler's program has surged to the front lines of children's mental health services. "It is the latest, and clearly the most effective, service model," says Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. "He has set a standard and challenged other service providers to think about what they do and whether the service models they use are the best." Based in Memphis, Youth Villages now serves 11,000 children and their families per year.
The success of Youth Villages goes back to a moment about 13 years ago when Lawler and his colleagues began feeling that the traditional model of youth services-removing children from their homes for treatment-wasn't working. "In the early years, we thought we were in the business of raising other people's kids," Lawler says. "But many kids were not doing well after they left us."
Amid the search for answers, Lawler and his staff discovered the multisystemic therapy model, which was developed by Scott Henggeler of the Family Services Research Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. The model was designed to help antisocial children by stressing an intensive, holistic approach that treats the family as well as the child. Lawler and his staff became the first U.S. practitioners to launch MST on a large scale.
The home-based care model is now used in 30 states and 10 countries. "[Lawler] was able to project into the future and see the implications of new treatment technologies," says Henggeler. "That type of thinking has the potential to unbelievably improve outcomes for children."
Stand tall. Lawler's suburban Memphis, middle-class upbringing hardly prepared him for the difficult field in which he has spent his 33-year career. After high school, he took a job as a counselor at Tall Trees, a Shelby County youth guidance school. "I was drawn to the most troubled kids," he says. "They seemed to have so much life and energy, just like me, but they lived these horrible childhoods."