Pioneering “shocking" methods, Warrendale frees children from troubled prisons of fear and loneliness

SHEILA H. KIERAN February 19 1966


Pioneering “shocking" methods, Warrendale frees children from troubled prisons of fear and loneliness

SHEILA H. KIERAN February 19 1966


Pioneering “shocking" methods, Warrendale frees children from troubled prisons of fear and loneliness


I BECAME INTERESTED in the Warrendale treatment centre near Toronto because I had heard it was using unusual and controversial methods to reach emotionally disturbed children. And I had seen Canadian Mental Health Association estimates that five to ten percent of all school-aged children in Canada are emotionally disturbed. Comparable estimates compiled in the United States go as high as twenty percent.

Those figures mean there are at least half a million emotionally disturbed children throughout Canada, and perhaps more than a million.

That last figure, particularly, may sound incredibly high — but only to people who suppose that every emotionally disturbed child exhibits obvious symptoms. In many cases the symptoms are obvious. The worst case in your neighborhood may be the child everybody knows as an incorrigible delinquent. But he could just as easily be some youngster who is the polite neighborhood favorite. Only a pattern of poor schoolwork, quarreling and truancy may warn his parents that feelings of rage, depression, fear — feelings we all have at some time and in some degree — have overwhelmed a child.

Knowing that much, I wondered what kind of help is being offered to such children at the Warrendale Residential Treatment Centre For Emotionally Disturbed Children. I had read puzzling, fragmentary newspaper reports about teenagers being given baby bottles, adolescent girls being cuddled by the staff, and of bitter attacks on Warrendale's methods made by other workers in the child-care field.

But 1 knew that Warrendale was reported to have an almost incredible record of success: in her master’s thesis at the University of Toronto, one student of social work estimated that Warrendale treatment had worked in about eighty-five percent of cases. I knew Warrendale offered a service desperately needed yet almost unknown in Canada. Authorities estimate that there may be thirty thousand children whose disturbance is so severe they require residential treatment; but, including institutions that are essentially orphanages, there are facilities for treating fewer than five hundred disturbed children in Canada.

So I decided to see Warrendale for myself. Warrendale is not actually in a single place but is housed in eleven buildings in two locations near Toronto (as well as a summer camp) and is the only treatment centre in Canada that accepts boys and girls of all ages. It takes the castoffs from other institutions — the distraught nerve-racking schizophrenics, the children written off elsewhere as hopeless.

The cost of treatment is high

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“ Our goal is rehabilitation by whatever methods work”

continued / — twenty-four dollars a day. The centre gets some provincial money and about thirty-three thousand dollars a year from the United Appeal. But because of an increasing financial bind, Warrendale will soon be accepting only children whose parents can pay for treatment provided, or who are wards of the Children’s Aid Society (which picks up the tab).

A staff of more than a hundred care for ninety children. They work in “families” of eight to twelve youngsters, four to six child-care workers, a group leader and assistant. The leaders report to the administrator of each project w'ho, in turn, report to John Brown, a U. S.-born anthropologist, sociologist and social worker and director of Warrendale since a year after its 1952 opening.

One day last autumn 1 visited two cottages on the grounds of Sunnybrook Veterans’ Hospital where fortyfour children were staying temporarily until four modern homes in the suburb of Etobicoke were completed. Five or six kittens were playing beside the porch. Inside, there was a blare of rock-and-roll music from one direction, uncertain scales on a flute from another; and the remarkably clear voice of a boy singing the Kyrie eleison, from the Roman Catholic Mass.

In the Warrendale classroom that morning (about one third of the youngsters go to public schools but the rest, as part of their treatment, do not) I found that the emphasis is on feeling, not on learning. On one side of the room Mike Kirkpatrick, a professional football player for the Toronto Rifles who also teaches at Warrendale, was patiently listening as an untidy boy read an essay. On the other side of the room two staff members were giving individual coaching in schoolwork to a few of the fourteen girls — some sitting at school desks, one asleep on the couch, one busily writing a note.

At midmorning there was a break for sandwiches, during which 1 agreed to a game of Crazy Eights with some of the boys. During the game I found that swearing of a kind that would guarantee expulsion from any other school in Canada is tolerated at Warrendale: the teachers look upon such language as being simply a reflection of the children’s angry feelings.

Warrendale’s supervisory people are trained social workers or psychologists but, surprisingly, the childcare staff get most of their training on the job and through personal psychotherapy. (Recently, an Indian clinical psychologist and lay psychoanalyst. Dr. L. C. Bhandari, was appointed senior staff member. He wall be primarily concerned with extending and improving the

staff-training program.) With today’s problems of inadequate staff in all fields of mental health, this solution strikes me as full of promise.

That first visit to Warrendale — with its contradictory impressions of normal children, but children who sleep and curse in class — made me more curious than ever about John Brown's theories and methods. Brown neither has nor pretends to have a single Truth to answer the problems of disturbed children, but he has strong convictions about why children become disturbed and what can be done to help them. (Brown points out that the key person in the development of these ideas and methods is Dr. Martin Fischer, psychiatric and medical director of Warrendale. Dr. Fischer is a Viennese psychiatrist, one of the first doctors to introduce psychoanalytic treatment to Canada.)

Fischer and Brown believe that, contrary to what many mental-health people say, disturbance is not a disease “just like the common cold.” Rather, Brown says, emotional disturbance occurs when human beings make inadequate attempts to adjust to the abnormal demands of their lives — the death of a parent or inadequate care in infancy, for example. Emotionally disturbed youngsters are not a subspecies of human beings; they are different not in the kind but in the degree of their emotions.

Brown brusquely rejects the idea of “hopeless” children. Warrendale persists, even with children such as seven-year-old Danny, who is autistic — seemingly deaf and dumb, and in the beginning unable to bear touching or being touched. “We don’t know' whether he’ll get better,” Brown admits, “but we are going to keep trying. And he is making progress.” Danny will now' allow his worker to hold him. But even to reach that stage has taken nearly two years.

Brown sees the child-parent relationship as one where the parent wants to give love to the child, but may be impaired by his own childhood experiences. The result may be a child who, in turn, has missed out on vital emotional experiences and remains, whatever his apparent age, still an uncivilized infant. On this basis, children at Warrendale are taken back to reexperience their infancy, this time with loving, giving substitute parents. If, in the opinion of the staff, a youngster needs a baby bottle he is given one, no matter what his age. The children, even the teenagers, are cuddled frequently, tucked into bed. bathed and some-

times fed. This is the essence

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Their heartrending cry is: Love me!

of the contentious “retrogression method” at Warrendale.

Some of Brown’s critics argue that retrogression is Freudian nonsense. One psychiatrist suggested to me that the retrogression is not a true expression of the children’s feelings, hut is suggested subtly by Warrendale staff, eager to fit the children, regardless of their real feelings, into Brown’s own theories of treatment. (Brown retorts wryly, “It seems remarkable that children who won’t respond to other suggestions are able to respond to ‘subtle suggestions’ at Warrendale.”)

Like any conviction, the one about retrogression can, I suppose, harden into dogma. But the staff, and Brown especially, seem flexible in their treatment. There’s the case of Ellen, for example, whose first meaningful contact with people began with a horse Warrendale bought for her. Ellen was bitter, withdrawn and rebellious when she went to Warrendale’s primitive summer camp at Minden, Ont. T3r. Martin Fischer said to her one day, “1 believe that, in every person, there is at least one area of trust. With you I think it is a horse” — an animal Ellen had always wanted and assumed she could never have.

When the horse came, Ellen groomed him, petted and fed him, sometimes walked a mile from the campsite to his meadow to feed him at night, although she was terrified of the dark.

Gradually, she began to take more interest in the things around her: she ate more and laughed a lot. Then, as September approached, she began to talk about going to a public school, instead of the Warrendale school she had been attending.

A triumph in her recovery occurred on the last day of camp, when she went to her staff worker, Walter Gunn, and said, “You keep pushing us to tell our feelings and I’m going to tell you mine.” And she did. For hours she and Gunn talked about her past and her feelings about it.

Four months after she got it, Ellen’s horse died. But her grief was not the unbearable burden it once would have

been, for she found that she could share it with people she had come to trust. “In time,” Gunn says, “the people had become as important as the horse had been.”

The breakthrough to meaningful sharing with another human being, the Warrendale staff insists, must come if treatment is to be successful. For Monica it came because of a skin ailment. Monica came to Warrendale five years ago. She was only eleven but she had already been in eight foster homes. She had been diagnosed as schizophrenic — withdrawn from reality into a fantasy world of magic rituals and gestures, repetitive questioning and incessant shrieking. “She was a real mess that first day,” one child-care worker remembers, “tangled hair, her right hand constantly winding string around two fingers of her left hand, and screaming repetitive questions like, ‘Whattimeisitwhattime isitwhattimeisit?’ until I thought I’d scream, too.”

The steady routine and loving care calmed Monica considerably, but two years ago she still hadn’t found anyone really to care for. Then Joanne Reinhardt a former teacher, came to Warrendale. Something happened to Monica: she found her “special” person in Joanne.

“I’m no good”

The breakthrough came one day as Joanne was sitting with Monica, who had a skin condition and was under the sunlamp. “You’re burning me,” Monica shrieked suddenly. “How dare you think I would do anything to hurt you,” Joanne shot back, and the two argued fiercely. Finally, Monica blurted, “It’s just the skin condition you care about — when it goes you won’t care for me.”

At last it was out in the open. The searing cry of the disturbed child: / am not ¡ting — unlovable, undeserving. Love ME . . . but you can’t love me — I’m no good.

Now, because the root of Monica’s feelings had been expressed, Joanne

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WARRENDALE continued

“Nobody cares!” she screamed

could deal with it, and before the day was out the two were talking about Monica’s hellish past, in which she had been from one family to another. In the days that followed, Monica allowed Joanne to feed her, to dress her, brush her hair, walk with her. Eventually she came to believe that she was worthy of the loving attention of another human being.

Recently, Monica had a birthday party. Pretty and demure in pink, she cut the cake, read the birthday cards, joyfully opened each gift and carefully folded the wrappings. “It wasn’t so much the social grace that made it so wonderful,” Joanne says, “as Monica’s feeling that she had a right to be there, that she deserved to be special. 1 could see how far she had come since the day of the sunlamp treatment.” Soon Monica will be leaving Warrendale.

Another method of bringing the rage and fear of disturbed children into the open is “holding.” The sounds of the first “holding” I ever witnessed assailed me even before I entered the cottage one evening. “I hate you! / hate you!” a girl was screaming. On the floor was Walter Gunn, spread-legged with a slight blond teenager in front of him. He had her hands pulled firmly across her chest and was holding them from behind. “What are you going to do with it?” he bellowed (meaning her anger). He sounded angry himself, but there was also strength and control in his tone. At the girl’s feet sat Joanne Reinhardt, urging her on in the same way.

At times, all three were yelling at once, but up and down the hall other children were playing, aware of the scene but not alarmed by it.

Just then. Bob Henry, Warrendale’s

assistant director, came along. “That’s Katie,” he explained. “She’s been sitting on tremendous anger for w-eeks. Today Walter and Joanne decided she needed a holding.”

At first they challenged her to face her feeling of rage and unworthiness. After several minutes Joanne gently hut firmly took Katie’s sullen face in her hands and demanded, “Look at me. Why don’t you look at me, Katie?” Katie had pushed Joanne away, and Gunn had grabbed Katie’s hands and now the three were on the floor in the position in which I found them. Now, as I watched, Joanne yelled, “You can show me how you feel.” Gunn shouted again, “What are you going to do with the anger?”

“Warrendale is a hellhole and you’re all phonies,” Katie screamed. “Nobody cares. Nobody cares!” The battle went on, then Katie suddenly spat at Joanne, “Get away, you lousy rotten Catholic.”

“Which Catholic do you really hate?”

And then the breakthrough to the source of Katie’s rage: “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him.” She was talking about her own father, a cold man who openly preferred her prettier younger sister. He is Roman Catholic.

For a few minutes more the cries of rage continued, but, feeling the real focus of her anger, Katie was soon limp and sobbing softly. Gunn let go and Joanne gathered Katie into her lap. For half an hour Katie poured out memories of rejection. Then, arm around the child, Joanne took her into the bathroom and gently bathed her. Then she tucked the girl in, turned off the light and walked to the door. “Joanne,” Katie said softly, “please don’t ever leave me.”

There were several aftereffects: For

WARRENDALE continued

Help takes many forms—-even baby’s bottle for a teenager

No worry for Mrs. Grundy

In the two months I visited Warrendale I was able to see for myself all the methods about which I had read stories, pro and con — all. that is, but one. I looked in vain for teenagers being cuddled suggestively by adult workers. Instead. I found, for the most part, that a substantial amount of physical contact comes in casual ways: Joanne making pigtails for Monica; another child-care worker ruffling the hair of a seven-yearold; Mike Kirkpatrick, the teacher, playing touch football with his class on the lawn; Terry Adler, a childcare worker, holding someone on her lap. All ol it casual and appropriate enough to withstand scrutiny by the most priggish Mrs. Grundy.

Nevertheless, when in trying to assess what I’d seen, I started polling outside professional opinion, one social worker asked rhetorically, “If you were a man, could you handle your ieelings at cuddling a teenage girl?“

I here were other objections: several professionals are offended at what they consider is Brown’s gall in insisting that schizophrenics can be cured (many psychiatrists consider all schizophrenics to be incurable). Brown, unruffled, points to Monica and others like her. and says emphatically. "We can sometimes read1 then}."

A social worker told me that children stay in Warrendale so long (the average stay is three years) that they are bound to undergo changes, and that Brown couldn't properly take the credit.

Brown says simply, "We're not interested in defending theories or

Katie a door was opened. There were benefits for the other children, too: some felt a little of their own tension being drained away in Katie's shrieks. Some were a little freer to approach their own staff and say such things as, "You remember when Katie was yelling. Well, I w'as thinking . . . ,” and then go on to pour out some of their owm guilt and anger.

On my next trip to Warrendale I saw the most frequently mentioned of John Brown's treatment methods: children, from five to sixteen, all drinking from baby bottles.

It's hard to grasp fully the feelings aroused at the sight of a sixteen-vearold girl sucking on a plastic bottle of Freshie. For a moment, I wondered if the psychiatrist who had accused Brown of encouraging bizarre behavior in children might not be right after all.

I told Brown my reaction. He said. “No child can grow emotionally unless most of his needs at earlier levels have been met. The feelings of pleasure, of being loved, of comfort that come from sucking are feelings that most of these kids have missed. We are giving them another chance at them.

"Sure, people are upset when they see a teenager getting a bottle. Why? Because they’re fighting their own wish to receive the love and care and comfort those bottles are a part of.”

methods. Our goal is the rehabilitation of these children by whatever methods work.”

On one of my last visits, I got a firsthand idea of what John Brown means when he speaks of the benefits emotional and physical contact can provide for the disturbed youngsters of Warrendale. I was standing on the

porch, talking to Brown, when I felt a warm hand shyly put in mine. It was Alan, a seven-year-old. and 1 was surprised, because Alan is autistic — he doesn't speak or seem to hear, and he seldom touches another human being.

John Brown said quietly. “At Warrendale we're not working theories.

Emotionally disturbed children, like Alan, can't reach out to the world around them. Our job is to break down the barriers of their loneliness, their isolation, their fear, with our human hopefulness and our involvement.”

And, as Alan and I stood there holding hands. I felt that sense of involvement and hopefulness, too. ★

Sheila //. Kieran is a staff w riter for the Toronto Globe and Mail.