When parents are at the end of their ropes, they call Richard Armstrong to lasso their troubled teenagers and get them to a camp or school.
He’s an intervention specialist.
Part counselor and part detective, Armstrong and others like him are hired to get kids safely into programs where they can be helped.
“One boy - we literally had to carry him out of the house,” Armstrong recalls. “At the car, he was crying. By the airplane, he could walk. By the time we got him to the wilderness program, he gave us a hug and says, ‘I can do that”’- meaning, he could handle going into the program.
Sometimes called “transport agents,” intervention specialists are not kiddie kidnappers. So say the consultants who help parents find programs for their teens.
“It’s not four big guys in black with handcuffs,” says consultant Linda Shaffer of Sandpoint.
Some may rely too much on physical control, she acknowledges, because they don’t know how to defuse tense situations with words alone.
In most states, Armstrong contends, children can be taken against their will at their parents’ request until they are 18. In Washington, only law officers can take someone over age 13 by force.
But police usually look the other way, Armstrong says. They are relieved that parents are dealing with the problem.
Nine out of 10 times, parents take their kids to an emotional growth school or camp.
That’s ideal, Shaffer says. “But some are convinced it would be almost impossible without wrestling around on the front lawn, without a scene at the airport.”
Armstrong can wrestle if need be. He’s a solid 6 feet 5, studied self-defense and will restrain a teen who’s hurting himself or threatening someone.
Mostly, Armstrong talks. Mostly, the kids listen.
“I tell them, ‘I know you don’t like this situation. I do understand. I’m a parent, and parents can make mistakes, but you need to get a grip.”’
Armstrong, 46, has two daughters. He lives in the North Idaho woods, where he settled in 1979 after doing “a lot of Jack London things,” such as mining in central Idaho and salmon fishing in Alaska.
In 1982, he was hired as a counselor for Rocky Mountain Academy. He stayed for seven years before working with another wilderness program.
Then he went to work for himself.
“In 1990, no one else was doing intervention,” he says. “The only options then were to have them arrested or put them in a hospital.”
Armstrong calls his business Boundary Lines, for the county where he lives and the limits that teenagers need. He has retrieved kids from all over the United States as well as from Canada, Italy and Japan.
Armstrong will quote individual estimates for his services but won’t cite an average figure. Costs vary a lot, he says, depending on how long a job takes and whether he needs help.
Intervention specialists charge up to $65 per hour plus expenses, say education consultants.
Consultant Lon Woodbury recalls one who “extracted” a girl from a crack house where her boyfriend was the ringleader.
“The police were talking about putting on bulletproof vests and storming the place,” Woodbury says. “He managed to get her before things exploded and charged $5,000 - which, considering the skills required and risks taken, wasn’t an overcharge.”
But there are jobs Armstrong won’t take.
“I don’t go into strangers’ houses and grab kids. That’s dangerous. That’s stupidity,” he says. “It’s different if the cops go first, if the parents are there.”
Armstrong is wary if parents don’t want to be involved. One or both should be there to explain what’s happening, he says.
“Parents need to tell the child they are concerned about their well-being, to say ‘Richard is here to assist you in getting there safely.”’
He counts on people to be upfront about what’s going on in the family.
“Sometimes parents lie to me or forget to say something. So on the morning I’m going to their home to help with their 17-year-old, they say, ‘By the way, my son got picked up last week on an illegal weapons charge.’ … What was that, now, an Uzi?”
Armstrong describes his work as emotionally charged.
“When I do one of these high-intensity things, it takes me a while to recover.
“It’s a tough time. It’s a tough time for the kid.”
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