Sanctuary: Blog

Sanctuary in Singapore

Submitted by: Brian Farragher, Executive VP and COO, ANDRUS


On Wednesday evening, January 25th I touched down in Singapore. I had left home some 25 hours earlier to begin my journey half way around the world. Plane hours are like dog years, it feels like time is standing still.

I will admit I was nervous about this trip. I was approached by the Ministry for Community Development, Youth and Sports back in the summer. At first, they had invited Sandy Bloom, but she felt she could not fly half way around the world and leave her 95 year old father behind in Philadelphia. Sandy recommended I make the trip, and given my commitment to growth and change I figured I would step out 14,000 miles outside my comfort zone and take the plunge.

I am very happy I decided to go. Singapore is an amazing country and I met so many wonderful, caring and committed people. What drew them to Sanctuary was the interest in how the organizational issues can positively or adversely impact the treatment clients receive. It’s great to know that many of the Sanctuary principles have a universal appeal. Although my new friends in Singapore thought they were learning from me, I am quite sure I learned a lot more from them.

I think my biggest take away from this experience was the opportunity to rethink the issue of punishment. The Ministry is grappling with the issue of punishment throughout the Children’s Services sector, and I was inspired by the efforts and their willingness to ask themselves and each other some very tough questions about their long held beliefs and assumptions.

I must confess all the conversations about punishment and consequences made me rethink our practices here in the US and specifically here at Andrus. Although our use of punitive practices is more refined and nuanced than our friends in Singapore, punishment and consequences is still at the center of how we think about our work with troubled children and how we think change occurs.

Human beings are wired for reciprocity. If someone is good to us we are good to them, if they treat us badly, we treat them badly. Many of the children who we serve have histories of being treated badly, sometimes by their families, often by their schools, and more often than we care to admit by treatment programs. As a result they approach all new relationships with the assumption they will be treated badly and often assume malice, even when it may not exist. More often than not these assumptions about the world cause them to treat caregivers badly and this behavior inspires caregivers to respond in a reciprocal fashion. Doing so serves only to perpetuate the child’s world view and reinforce destructive patterns.

The challenge it seems is to help staff respond to children and families in ways that are counterintuitive. It is our nature to fight violence with violence, hurt with hurt, pain with pain. It seems our ability to help people recover relies on our ability to change the script for our kids and families and avoid falling, thoughtlessly, into this reciprocal pattern. The assumptions we make about the value of punishment in extinguishing challenging behavior serves only to maintain the cycle of violence, hurt and pain, by reinforcing the child’s world view. It is clear we need to find another way.

So how do we make sure staff people consistently address challenging behavior in counterintuitive ways? How do we ensure that our responses are not simply our knee-jerk, default responses but emerge from our better angles, our sense of compassion, empathy and love? We have not figured that out yet, but it seems to me that an important first step is avoid responding to staff in this reciprocal manner. If we want staff to behave in ways that are counterintuitive, I suppose supervisors and executives must do the same. We all lay traps for each other and the more these traps elicit the responses we expect from others, the more our world view is confirmed and solidified.

I left Singapore on February 3rd. I had lots of time to ponder my experience as I sat on the plane for another 20 plus hours. I was inspired by the intent of the people I met to change the way their country approaches its most vulnerable kids. It made me think, “If they can be so bold to contemplate this change on such a grand scale, we certainly can do it at Andrus.” We can rethink the way we respond to troubling behavior, by responding in a way that creates a new script and hope for the future, rather than repeating old and destructive patterns of the past.

Sometimes you have to travel half way around the world to discover the truth that has been right in front of you all along.

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