Taboos, subversions and diversions: How residential treatment addresses the needs of preadolescent girls

Carmela J. DeCandia (1999)

Residential treatment has been a necessary part of the continuum of services available to at-risk youth for many years. However, as a system, residential treatment has done little to incorporate research documenting gender differences in psychosocial development into its existing treatment model. Grounded in feminist discourses on gender, and research on female development and trauma, three conceptual categories were explored in the context of girls' residential programming: Power; Relationships; and Subjectivity. A representative sample of 24 staff of an urban residential treatment center in eastern Massachusetts were asked about the assumptions underlying the model of treatment, and their views on the appropriateness of fit between the program's design and the needs of preadolescent girls in care. The results of this inquiry indicate that gender differences in therapeutic needs are not formally represented within the program's design. Specific obstacles to the provision of developmentally appropriate and culturally contextualized treatment include gender bias, low census patterns, and countertransference reactions particular to working with sexually abused girls. In contrast, institutional structures which benefit girls in residential treatment include group treatment modalities, sex education, and staff diversity. This study suggests that to better meet the needs of preadolescent girls, residential treatment programs need to empower girls, promote healing and development in relational contexts, and enable girls to agentially define their own sexual subjectivities. The ways in which dominant cultural paradigms are alternately supported and subverted by staff within the program are reviewed, and the sociopolitical implications for girls in residential treatment are discussed.