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Detour From Delinquency : 'I Treat the Person, and the Behavior Will Follow,' Says Adolescent Therapist Bruce Christle

July 15, 1993|BRAD BONHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was a winter night last year when Jesse's two friends approached him with a quick and easy plan to escape from Orange County Juvenile Hall. They would simply climb a fence and drop down on the outside.

Jesse's cohorts went first--up and over. Jesse, close behind, hesitated, thought for a moment, and walked back inside, leaving his friends to go on without him.

Asked later why he aborted his escape, Jesse said that, on top of his doubts that it was a wise move, he had realized he didn't have something he knew he'd need on the outside: the phone number of his therapist, Bruce Christle.

For Jesse (all teen-agers' names have been changed in this story), his therapist was more than another in a series of adult scolders and authority figures. Christle, a private psychologist with offices in Orange and Dana Point, was a sounding board, a confidant, even a friend.

Under Christle's counseling, Jesse, 15, had begun a program of self-directed, internal change, as opposed to mere behavior modification, away from delinquency.

As with many of Christle's clients, Jesse's problems were rooted in the family, with an abusive father who then became an absent father. Jesse used drugs in junior high school and fell into a gang environment. Now he is attending school regularly, sees teachers as resources rather than as threats and no longer has a drug problem.

In a region that's crowded with adolescent therapists, Bruce Christle stands out. His methodology enjoys a 90% success rate--nearly twice the average--in keeping youths from second trips to juvenile hall or youth camps, says one veteran probation officer.

His techniques include candor, empathy and hard work. Christle is possibly the only private therapist in the county who will visit his clients after they've been arrested and put behind bars. He charges fees based on families' ability to pay, refuses to include travel time in his fees and goes to unusual lengths, such as attending rap concerts and even visiting gangbangers' turf, to gain the teen-agers' confidence and respect.

Christle makes efforts to learn "everything that's important" to the juvenile offenders.

"When you're dealing with adolescents you have to be something of a cultural anthropologist and appreciate the fact that you may as well be dealing with a completely foreign culture," Christle says. "They have a whole different value system."

With his walrus mustache, longish hair and laid-back demeanor, Christle, 44, presents a refreshing image to offenders accustomed to the button-down straightness and shiny badges of the county-run juvenile justice system.

He also rises in their estimation through his mode of transit. No dull tan sedan for him; he gets from home to office to Juvenile Hall on an impeccably restored 1970 Triumph motorcycle.

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According to Karolyn Zebarth, a teacher of severely emotionally disturbed youths with the Orange County Department of Education, Christle's persona and commitment help him get results.

"Bruce is unusually good with the delinquent population, with the real defiant kids," she says. "He makes an effort to understand them and does achieve a real depth of understanding with individual kids."

Christle's background, nothing if not diverse, also helps him relate to his wayward charges. In the 1970s he worked as a kindergarten teacher, a police officer, a Kmart manager, a combat Marine in Vietnam and a shepherd.

Also, like many of his clients, he dropped out of high school, feeling he was being judged and coerced by people who didn't care about him. He later earned an equivalency degree and went on to get a master's in psychology from the University of La Verne.

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At the heart of Christle's approach is a simple idea: Juvenile offenders have a sense of being that needs to be acknowledged and nurtured. This basic principle is usually overlooked, he says, because the priority of most juvenile-offender counseling is to change the external behavior, the symptoms, as expediently as possible.

"What makes my approach different is that I treat the person, and the behavior will follow," he says. "Most therapists redirect the behavior and assume the person will change."

He teaches the youngsters to control themselves through their commitment to being honest--both to Christle and to themselves. Their previous experience in school and in the justice system has taught them to associate honesty with punishment, Christle says, so they lie, claiming they don't do drugs, or they say what they think the authorities want to hear.

"I get them thinking about what they really want in life, and that offers the most powerful hold over all their subsequent behavior," he says. "I might point out, 'If you truly want to be happy, how is failing school going to make you happy?' I get them to claim the behavior they want, and that lays a claim to motivation."

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