Author Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” explains how two modes in our brains make decisions. One is fast/hot, an instinctive and emotional process often fueled by anger, fear or a survival response. The other is the slow/cool system, characterized by a calm and more conscious state of mind that is rational, thoughtful, deliberate and capable of making complex decisions. Both modes have their virtues and vices, depending on the circumstances in which a decision is being made.
Michigan’s responses to the death of Cornelius Frederick, a teen who was killed while being restrained by staff at a residential care facility with a history of licensing violations, were fast/hot ones. The state’s child welfare director, JooYeun Chang, sat by the teen’s bedside at the hospital so he wouldn’t die alone. Soon after Frederick passed, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) issued two executive actions specifically stemming from the incident.
In my opinion, those executive actions represent the upside and downside of fast/hot thinking.
The first ended any relationship between Michigan and the company Sequel, which operated Lakeside Academy, the residential program where Frederick died. Sequel is a for-profit organization operating in a field dominated by nonprofits, which can solicit grants and donations to help it meet expenses.
Making money on the backs of troubled, abused and in-need-of-help youth is distasteful, unethical and in many instances abhorrent to the public servant. The Huffington Post’s Chris Kirkham identified common qualities of the private for-profit agency: decades of bad history, cruel conditions of confinement, poor documentation of case management, and political connectedness.
Kirkham also noted how falsified program outcome data worked to give a positive impression of the facility and renewed contracts. His work raises serious “knew or should have known” questions about the Lakeside and Starr decisions to contract with a for-profit agency.
This action signals to other for-profit organizations, and really all of Michigan’s child care facilities, that the Whitmer administration is serious about reform. It sets a precedent in the state that services rendered on the cheap to some of its most vulnerable citizens will no longer be acceptable. It was the right kind of instinctive reaction.
The second executive action banned the use of physical restraints at all of the facilities licensed by Michigan as “child-caring institutions.” Reform of physical restraint policy with an end game of eliminating restraints is appropriate, but here is where fast/hot decision-making sometimes moves too quickly to address complexity.
Child-caring institutions (CCIs) receive youth from the child welfare and the juvenile justice systems. Multiple facility types exist based on the different needs of the youth. CCI facilities include day care, day treatment, after school programs, shelter care, domestic abuse shelters, homeless shelters, general foster care, therapeutic foster care, intensive foster care, group homes, evening reporting centers, secure juvenile detention, staff secure juvenile detention, residential treatment, independent living placements and respite programs, just for starters.
Of Michigan’s 26 juvenile detention facilities (see Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs webpage), only half are CCI-licensed. The rest are juvenile court-operated and inspected under different and less extensive regulations. An active professional association for juvenile detention, the Michigan Juvenile Detention Association (MJDA), conducts training and staff development activities for detention practitioners in all 26 facilities with the goal of formalizing and standardizing juvenile detention practices across the state.
How this executive action can be a statewide reform but apply to only half of detention is perplexing. The failure to address the differences in juvenile detention administration and the absence of a coherent plan of action are where potentially detrimental problems for this action begin.
This level of complexity requires the state to flip the switch from the fast/hot to slow/cool decision-making to resolve aspects antithetical to authentic reform:
· Treating all CCI facilities as if they are the same. Believing a successful child welfare reform strategy will automatically work in juvenile justice invites “one-size-fits-all” problems.
· Sanctioning all CCI facilities because of the failures of one. Youth law advocates consistently advise against “blanket policies” as fundamental fairness or due process violations.
· Taking something away without having anything better to replace it. The executive action offers little more than a stop order with no alternatives that address the safety concerns of youth and staff.
Making every licensed facility operate as an evidence-based program that includes trauma-responsive programming within a developmentally appropriate context is a great start, but it does not rule out the inadvertent triggering of highly emotional reactions by detainees. The unknowns about youth in temporary detention predict increased accidental triggering of automatic fast/hot responses. When harmful or dangerous behaviors accompany these emotional episodes, what is the guidance from the state about how to maintain safety?
The downsides of making fast/hot mode decisions include the risks of a wrong decision with disastrous consequences or a right decision implemented so poorly that unsuccessful consequences are unavoidable.
As a lifelong reformer of juvenile justice facilities, I support the kind of improvements to licensed facilities that would eliminate the need for physical restraints. But without a reasonable opportunity for input, public sector leaders may be forced unwillingly to accept and implement a “reform" strategy that discounts many of our core values about equity, best practices, evidence-based research and data-driven decisions.
Juvenile justice leader Earl Dunlap once observed, “Egregious behavior drives policy, but professionals drive best practice." There are two documented, evidence-based, professional and public sector pathways to an authentic reform of physical restraints and solitary confinement. The input of juvenile justice professionals affiliated with these reforms could help Michigan implement a better and more legitimate reform effort.