Jan Snavely Finds One-Third of Juvenile Offenders Have Learning, Language and Hearing Problems

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jan Snavely was born and raised just south of San Francisco in the affluent town of Woodside. Her father, Jay Hood Snavely, is a Protestant minister; her mother, Bobbie, a coronary care nurse. Her high school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Menlo Park, was so uppercrust that her roommate was the pre-Tania Patty Hearst. But in January 1981, Snavely walked into the California Youth Authority Institution in Paso Robles and heard the gate slam shut behind her. Snavely, now 30, wasn't facing a jail term—just the challenge of her life.

She was there to start a program—the first of its kind in the U.S.—to rehabilitate juvenile offenders suffering from learning disabilities and speech disorders. The Newport Language, Speech and Audiology Center in Laguna Hills had been contracted by the state to provide speech therapy and hearing services to adolescent inmates. Snavely, as clinical director of speech pathology for the center, was tapped. Her new caseload: 450 juvenile offenders whose crimes included robbery, drug dealing, murder, rape.

"I didn't know anything about gang violence or street drugs. I didn't know that people lived like that," confesses Snavely, whose first move was to discard her makeup and straight skirts in favor of baggy pants and loose sweaters. Snavely would make many more unsettling discoveries. Chief among them was her conclusion, after five years' work with 2,000 juvenile offenders, that between 35 and 45 percent were suffering from learning and language disorders and impaired hearing. Youth Authority officials had suspected such a correlation. Snavely was able to pinpoint the underlying causes: head injuries and drugs. Many inmates, she found, had taken so many drugs prior to their arrest that they suffered brain damage that lessened their ability to hear and, in turn, to communicate. Such a situation, she points out, inevitably "promotes and nurtures potential delinquency."

"The young men who had the most violent behavior and discipline problems, the ones who had committed really brutal crimes, had the worst communicative problems," she says. (Studies since, principally by audiologist Robert Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin, have found that statistics on hearing loss among adult offenders corroborate Snavely's findings.)

Once the wards, as youthful offenders are called, were enrolled in a program to alleviate their inability to communicate, their disciplinary problems subsided. But Snavely's task was not easy. She found herself going back to basics, using building blocks to teach language skills, and working on eye contact and better facial expressions to equip them for jobs in the outside world.

After six months Snavely was so successful that she was asked to initiate programs in four other CYA institutions. Last year she began programs in the remaining five. Now concentrating on Southern California, she has a staff of five speech pathologists and an audiologist distributed among five institutions and two camps.

When she first started, success was far from certain. Snavely's most daunting priority was getting to know the young offenders, most aged 13 to 22, but some as young as 9. "They tested me," she admits. In time she discovered that alcohol use typically started at the age of 5, when parents would share alcohol with their kids, who then progressed to sniffing paint and using PCP. "We find Hispanics sniffing gas and paint, blacks doing a lot of PCP and cocaine and whites sticking to the more chemical-related drugs like acid and mescaline," she says. "The toxicity with gas, paint and PCP, is incredibly high, and there is significant brain damage."

Violence that produced severe head injuries proved to be a common problem. "If I test 15 wards," she says, "at least five or six of them will report injuries from gang violence, domestic quarrels or car accidents where they've gone through the windshield. I ask, 'Have you ever had a head injury?' and they show me a scar running the entire length of the scalp."

Snavely's pioneering work has not gone unrecognized. Last fall the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association gave her the Di Carlo Award for outstanding clinical achievement. She has received calls from 14 other states that are interested in her work. Even more satisfying is the record her former wards are setting. An informal survey of 25 showed that only two had gotten into trouble after their release, and one of these only for a minor parole violation. "When I go to the youth authorities and see these 18-and 19-year-old, normal-looking, healthy-looking kids," she says, "that to me is where there's great potential, and that's where I want to see improvement.

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