After Jumiya’s July dash to her grandmother’s house, authorities stopped chasing her. In e-mail after e-mail, the city’s advocates focused on the institutional option—all but dismissing the fact that their ward was actually doing well with her grandmother.
Jumiya got her last taste of familial bonding on Labor Day weekend that year. She found an aunt she never knew. Her mother’s sister lived in Baltimore and agreed to take her in over the holiday. Those three days passed by without incident. Jumiya didn’t run. She wondered if her aunt could take her in.
But District officials were still intent on an RTC for Jumiya. According to Jumiya, they promised to consider the aunt as a potential foster parent only if she complied with residential treatment. Jumiya felt that she had no choice but to turn herself in. She didn’t want cops storming her grandmother’s house to cart her away.
On Sept. 8, 2009, Jumiya was finally transported to North Spring Behavioral Healthcare in Leesburg, Va. Her social worker rejoiced in an e-mail to everyone who worked on Jumiya’s case: “Team—excellent new(s)…Jumiya SIGNED HERSELF into NorthSprings today. thank you to the team for the work so far…as well as the work ahead!”
Rather than moving away from residential placements, the District government appears to be embracing them more energetically. The plethora of city officials authorized to send kids away—juvenile justice, child-welfare, the school system, and health-care—makes it hard to track the numbers. But at a time of budget shortfalls and cuts to much cheaper city services, expenditures to residential treatment keep going up:
- In 2008, DYRS spent $3.4 million on RTCs. They tripled that number in 2010, spending $10,391,988 on RTCs, according to the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
- The city’s Department of Health Care Finance spent $9.5 million on RTCs during fiscal year 2009. In 2010, it spent $15,523,993.
- The Office of the State Superintendent of Education spent $14.8 million in 2009 and $15,254,341 this past year.
- Only CFSA can point to a recent decline—from $4.5 million in 2008 to $3.8 million in 2009. (2010 figures were not available.)
Those figures would be even bigger if you counted federal Medicaid money spent on the District’s RTC placements.
If the city wants to reduce RTC spending, child advocates say, the fix involves increasing and enhancing effective locally based services. Instead, agencies tend to give those things short shrift. DYRS spending on community services last year totaled just over $4.6 million—far less than what the agency spent on RTCs. “I believe that many, many fewer children would be in residential, would need to go to residential if D.C. had a good community-based mental health system,” says Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center.
Placements with extended family—like the kind that Jumiya sought with her grandmother and her aunt—have likewise gone underutilized despite their cheap cost to the city. In 2009, only 15 percent of the District’s foster children lived with relatives compared to the national average of 24 percent, according to city and federal documents. Recently, the city’s program to assist grandparent caregivers was reduced.
Therapy is a similarly scarce resource. A recent report by the D.C. Behavioral Health Association found that a DYRS youth is seven times more likely to be placed in an RTC than to receive therapy. Funding for children’s mental-health services has seen decreases as well.
The ease of pushing kids out of town—and moving their cases out of local officialdom’s in-boxes—has created something of a vicious cycle, according to observers. “The issue is lazy bureaucracy,” says a former District administrator. “It’s much more difficult to design a detailed wraparound plan than it is just to stick a youth in a facility.”
Case workers simply like RTCs, admits a DYRS official. “Absolutely they do,” the official says. “I think it’s because they run out of ideas. I don’t think they know how to create a plan to help a young person…so they resort to the most extreme measure. You are talking about taking away their liberty to help them. An RTC is not a jail. People kind of use it [as a] jail.”
No kidding: According to internal DYRS data, RTC placements increased by 127 percent between 2008 and 2009, from 11 percent of committed kids to 25 percent. In 2010, the total number of DYRS kids in RTCs has ballooned to 223; in March 2009, they had 110. One source familiar with the data says there are as many as 29 DYRS youth who are sitting in RTCs because they are merely “awaiting placement.” Dozens more are being recommended for residential placements over minor infractions like curfew violations.
The addiction, in fact, got the agency into trouble. According to government documents, DYRS went a projected $994,000 over budget in 2009 because the agency used RTCs for youth that “did not meet the definition of medical necessity” and had to eat the cost.