Compounding the problem, the perpetual availability of RTCs undercuts efforts to enact reforms that have succeeded elsewhere. Why go through the work of finding ways to offer kids like Jumiya crucial social services at home when out-of-state placement is always a few bureaucratic steps away? For government social workers, residential placements amount to an addiction—a disincentive to offering the programs that scholars now say can best help at-risk kids and families.
“[My mother] don’t want me,” Jumiya told me before she finally left for an RTC in early September 2009. “So why am I getting punished?” More than a year and $100,000 later, District residents should be asking the same thing.
This year, residents of the District of Columbia have learned a lot about graduates of city-affiliated RTCs.
Take for instance, Alante Saunders, 19. In November, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the shooting death of Shaw Middle School principal Brian Betts at his home in Silver Spring. In and out of the juvenile-justice system on robbery charges, he’d been identified as someone in need of treatment for alleged sexual abuse as victim and perpetrator, city records show. In May 2008, he was placed in an RTC in Georgia. In August 2009, he admitted to “sexual acting out incidents” at the RTC. In December, he was placed in a “therapeutic group home.” Four months later, he murdered Betts.
And Reginald Rogers, 18. He was arrested last March for the shooting death of Calvin Woodland. Rogers had been in and out of the system for several years on drug and weapons charges. On April 14, 2009, he was sent to an RTC in Arizona, his second such stint. Four months after his discharge, he allegedly murdered Woodland, the brother of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s chief of staff.
Kurtis Faison, 18, had done stints in facilities in Virginia, Maryland, Florida, and Minnesota where he was supposed to receive substance-abuse treatment. Nine days after his release, he allegedly shot and killed Melvin White, 27, off Benning Road.
Finally, there’s Sanquan Carter, 19. Law enforcement authorities believe that Carter’s alleged murder of Jordan Howe over a missing bracelet led to a March drive-by shooting that killed four teenagers along South Capitol Street. Carter had been in an RTC between June and November in 2008. After his release, he would continue to pick up charges until his murder arrest.
Unlike Jumiya, these kids came into the system on criminal charges. But like Jumiya, they arrived with personal demons that RTCs were supposed to treat. To the advocates, lawyers, and officials who monitor the work of RTCs, the institutions’ lack of success was not at all shocking. One lawyer admitted that more than half of his clients that were sent to RTCs went on to commit crimes after their release. “Coming out of residential treatment,” said another attorney, “none of them have their lives changed.”
City officials admit as much, too. “A lot of the youth that have gotten in trouble—many of them have gone to psychiatric residential treatment facilities,” says Marie Morilus-Black, the D.C. Department of Mental Health’s Children and Youth Services director. “[The facilities] didn’t fix them. It helps but often it’s not a sustainable change.”
“I don’t see the benefit of RTCs,” says Dr. Roque Gerald, director of child and family services. “They are overly expensive and they have not shown research-wise any benefit for kids.”
Stats going back more than a decade confirm the notion that RTCs are not much of a fix. A 2000 Department of Justice study reported a 90 percent recidivism rate among RTC graduates. “In the past, admission to an RTC has been justified on the basis of community protection, child protection, and benefits of residential treatment,” said a U.S. Surgeon General’s report from a year earlier. “However, none of these justifications have stood up to research scrutiny.”
They don’t hold up that well to other kinds of scrutiny either. The District’s own inspections of these facilities by city workers reveal that these places were far from tranquil respites. A 2009 report by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the city’s juvenile justice agency, showed that one facility isolated District children for their first two-to-six weeks. The children called the isolation unit “the dungeon.” Other reports have lambasted more prosaic problems (1, 2), from dingy facilities to broken furniture to overcrowded rooms to kids found sleeping in hallways.
Investigations repeatedly knock the therapeutic efforts, too. One outside study showed that 63 percent of RTC residents in education programs “made no or minimal progress.” The District’s own officials found non-existent treatment plans for city wards and diagnoses that went unaddressed, records show (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Obesity is a recurring problem. They also found RTC staffers who lacked an understanding of the impact of trauma, falsified treatment records, and often locked families out of the treatment process. One inspection revealed the stress of living in these places: “Several clients’ hair is falling out…a complaint was made of physical and verbal abuse by staff.”