Jumiya Crump was on the run. It was close to 9:30 p.m. on July 1, 2009. “I just left,” she blurted into the phone. “I don’t know what to do.”
So Jumiya, 16, started walking. From downtown, she moved east, in the shadow of a freeway overpass, past a public housing complex. A Metrobus got her over the Anacostia River. Another short walk brought her to her grandmother’s house off Minnesota Avenue NE, the safest address she had ever known.
“I have nothing but the clothes on my back,” she had said, her voice flickering in and out. “I really don’t know what to do. Like seriously.”
Hours earlier, Metropolitan Police Department officers had taken Jumiya to the Southwest headquarters of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. She had sat on a bench in the first-floor lobby waiting to find out why. Her own social worker had gone home. A stranger broke the news that she would soon be transferred to an out-of-state residential treatment center for disturbed youth. She felt like she had no choice but to flee.
Jumiya had come into the system as a victim, not a criminal. In July 2008, her grandmother called police after spotting jagged welts on Jumiya’s arms. Cops took her to Howard University Hospital. She was asked to shed her clothes as authorities documented old scars and burns.
Subsequent statements from Jumiya, her four-year-old brother, and her grandmother accused Jumiya’s mother of doing the damage. In an interview, her mother says a burn was accidental; she says the injury that brought Jumiya to the hospital that day had come from a simple purse strap. But “we had a physical altercation” in the past, she says. Jumiya left the hospital as a ward of the city.
The District’s safety net had caught Jumiya, but now it had to parent her. For a kid like Jumiya, this meant group homes and curfew checks, lots of tough kids but few nurturing adults. She ended up running away a lot. To her social worker and other government caregivers, this meant she was unstable, a liability. It didn’t matter that she always ran home to family.
That night wasn’t Jumiya’s first escape. It wouldn’t be her last. But something was different. She felt abandoned. Her mother had regained custody of her siblings. Jumiya, on the other hand, was being locked away. Was she a fugitive?
The next morning, Jumiya looked the part in old jeans and a T-shirt, her skinny braids loosened into a wild frizz. We’d been meeting for a month as part of a Washington City Paper investigative project on kids in the child-welfare system. Now, at a McDonald’s near RFK Stadium, she simply put her head on our table. No need to look up.
Jumiya should have been a routine case. She had no criminal record. She wanted to go to college. She had a steady, responsible boyfriend. In calm moments at home, she’d watch Law & Order SVU or Full House reruns and play with her little brother and his toy cars. She could talk your ear off about the Redskins and gush over Hello Kitty ephemera. Now she barely felt like talking. The beatings, she said, were easier than this. “It was less stressful,” she explained.
What Jumiya was finding so oppressive was a child-treatment approach that government agencies across the country have been turning away from during the past 15 years.
Once seen as child welfare’s necessary evil—pretty places to send your delinquents—residential treatment centers (RTCs) are now commonly viewed as statistically dubious money pits. In places as varied as Wisconsin, Tennessee, and New York, they’re now disdained as emblems of systemic failure. Instead, authorities are keeping kids close to home—or even with their families—while ramping up the sorts of local outreach and counseling that don’t prompt teenagers to run away.
In the District, though, RTCs remain the bedrock of the system. As of February 2009, according to a city administrator’s report, more than 500 D.C. kids were housed in 96 different facilities from Florida to Minnesota to Utah. Another 2009 report, from the nonprofit advocacy group University Legal Services, concluded that the percentage of D.C. students in institutionalized settings is higher than any state but South Dakota. The city administrator noted that the District spends roughly $61 million in federal and local money annually on this outsourcing.
What this money buys the District is a system that has racked up scores of complaints, charges of abuse, and the creeping sense among child advocates that kids put in RTCs—whether they arrive as victims like Jumiya or as underage offenders referred by the city’s juvenile-justice system—come out worse than when they went in.