Why do RTCs work so badly? You could make a pretty good case that their sylvan setting distracts officialdom from their basic flaw: The facilities are tremendous concentrators of pathology and dysfunction—the very things kids like Jumiya were supposedly being removed from D.C. in order to avoid. In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a study of residential facilities and found that in one year—2005—34 states reported 1,503 incidents of abuse and neglect by RTC staff. One year earlier, the agency found that 28 states—including the District—reported at least one death in these facilities.
In 2008, one D.C. managed care organization which serves kids with the highest needs, reported that the majority of its “unusual” incidents took place in RTCs. For fiscal year 2009, the Department of Mental Health reported 301 “major” incidents involving children at RTCs. This does not include incidents reported to other agencies. But to put it in context, there were just 440 incidents reported by local providers who serve some 15,000 people.
University Legal Services, in its 2009 study, reported complaints including beatings, chokings, excessive use of restraints, abuse of incapacitating drugs, and prolonged isolation-cell stints. The report further highlighted the work of one Pennsylvania RTC that housed eight D.C. child-welfare youth. For those youth, the facility conducted 214 incidents of physical restraint and 37 incidents of chemical restraint in just one year.
Sources, court records, and incident reports obtained by Washington City Paper show several District children attempted suicides (1, 2, 3, 4), one 16-year-old District ward was raped by an RTC staffer who hadn’t had a full background check, and many others suffered abuses including restraint bruises to the face and arms, a staff-inflicted broken arm, staff-resident trysts, and extended isolation over minor infractions like stealing candy from a cafeteria; one resident had been in isolation for five months. And those are just the incidents reported to the city. Too often, violent episodes go unreported.
No wonder the prospect of an RTC placement didn’t feel all that nurturing for Jumiya. The idea scared her, she e-mailed an advocate: “How will me and my mothers relationship [be] better? What changes will be made? How will this process better my life?…I toss and turn in my sleep every night not knowing what to expect.”
By the time she was placed in an RTC, Jumiya had already demonstrated that she could thrive in less frightening, less costly environments. Six months before her July 1, 2009, escape, she was placed in a temporary foster home in suburban Maryland. For the first time since becoming a ward of the city, Jumiya didn’t run. When her social worker arrived, she insisted on showing off her bedroom.
Jumiya’s foster mom had offered to help her decorate her room. Jumiya had picked out a pink-and-purple comforter set, a matching nightlight, and a small pink circular rug. “I just wanted to stay there,” she recalls. “I told the social worker…But, they took me out of the house.” Jumiya lived there for three weeks—the foster mom had only signed up as a temporary placement. She no longer remembers the foster mother’s name or where she lived. Today, the experience is just a sentence in her child-welfare records.
But when her temporary stay ended, Jumiya was back at the mercy of a city that had repeatedly failed her. According to child-welfare records and e-mails, the city did not enroll her in school on time. For one scary 24 hours, she was homeless; when she couldn’t reach her social worker, she ended up having to call CFSA’s emergency hotline. For her first year as a city ward, Jumiya did not get a single therapy session to address her traumatic history. “She got nothing,” says a source familiar with her records.
During one group-home stay, other girls jumped Jumiya; police were called. Jumiya had warned her advocates that she didn’t feel comfortable at that facility. They sent her anyway. “The youth didn’t really have a voice,” explains one of her caregivers. “[The city] already knew what the plan was: Get her out of the way.” Those who have reviewed Jumiya’s records say it appears clear that, early on, officials decided she should be steered toward an RTC.
A judge signed off on such a placement in February 2009. Through that spring and summer, Jumiya’s social worker and other advocates chased her around town, hoping to put her in residential treatment. At one point, a CFSA administrator and a city attorney pushed to get DYRS to lock her away in its Youth Services Center, where kids with criminal charges go. Jumiya could run from social workers. But she might not run from the police.