Theses Doctoral

In the House of Change: The Making and Remaking of Female Youth in Residential Treatment

Gogel, Leah Pearce

This study explores the experiences of female youth in a residential treatment center serving adolescents in the New York juvenile justice, foster care, and special education systems. Findings are based on 11 months of ethnographic fieldwork and semi-structured interviews with eight female juvenile justice residents and ten staff members on the campus. Drawing on a robust literature in psychological anthropology and critically applied medical anthropology, as well as work on pathology and criminality in psychology, sociology, and philosophy, the study uncovers the processes through which a group of adolescent girls are made and remade within the space of residential treatment.

I argue that such processes are contingent upon specific arrangements of institutional life that work toward the reform and reconstitution of individual selves. The chapters in this study demonstrate how institutional arrangements shape the lives of female youth in complex ways that are not entirely consistent. Some of these arrangements are wrought from above through the formal categorization of youth by their referral source, the psychiatric diagnoses attached to their case records, the staffing structure, and the design of therapeutic interventions.

Others, however, are tinkered with from below, with residents and staff alike redefining the space of residential treatment and the type of work that gets done on the campus. What emerges is a complex interplay between the fairly strict principles structuring the institution and the creative work by residents and staff encountered in the minutiae of daily life. This interplay works to underscore the idea that categories (of referral sources, of diagnoses, of therapeutic interventions) are in flux, shaping youth and also shaped by youth in turn. Although this work is primarily ethnographic in nature, it also pays attention to the historical material that is linked to current perceptions about residential treatment, delinquent youth, and psychiatric disorder.

I argue that deep understanding of the institutional arrangements at the center of this work depends on knowledge about the past and about transformations in the treatment of youth over time. This historical context is especially important for understanding the enduring ambivalence about residential treatment and for thinking about what place residential treatment centers might occupy on the continuum of treatment options for youth with behavioral and emotional health problems. By situating my findings within the broader context of residential treatment and juvenile justice in the United States, I call attention to some of the policy implications that arise from this study and suggest opportunities for re-envisioning residential treatment in the current child welfare environment.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Applied Anthropology
Thesis Advisors
Harrington, Charles C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 10, 2012