The city’s child-welfare agency, which looks out for kids like Jumiya, has fared better in keeping its RTC enrollments down. In August, it had 73 kids in RTCs compared to 82 this past January. Have they suddenly found religion? Well, no. It turns out that the city’s Department of Mental Health—which must sign off on most of the agency’s RTC placements—has started getting stingy: Morilus-Black says her agency now rejects 80 percent of such requests.
Morilus-Black says she knows why the requests keep coming. To move away from the RTC system that failed kids like Jumiya, a government would need to find a way to bring workers from a bunch of different bureaucracies onto each case—finding mental-health assistance, job-hunting help, tutoring, child-rearing advice to a kid’s troubled parents, and any number of other things. But that doesn’t happen much.
“We will never avoid all together kids being in RTCS, all right?,” says Gerald, the CFSA director. “We’re not there yet. We’re building a better capacity on the ground.”
But not very fast. Two-and-a-half years ago, the Department of Mental Health, CFSA, DYRS and the D.C. Public Schools each put in money to start up such a program, known in child-welfare jargon as a “wraparound project.” The pilot program, DC Choices, serves 144 kids who might otherwise have gone to an RTC. Though the program is at capacity, its director was recently told to prepare for a 5-percent budget cut.
“We call it an edifice complex,” says one former DYRS official. “If a kid is not in a building, somehow you didn’t do anything for them. That’s just bullshit.”
Hampton, Va., is not widely known as a hub of progressive policy. Its social-services offices are located in a repurposed high school in a dilapidated neighborhood. In the last year, the big renovation meant the removal of the old lockers in the halls. And yet the Virginia city near Norfolk offers a nearby example of a place that has embraced modern, cooperative approaches to helping kids who wind up in the child-welfare system. It’s also an example of how the idea of ending D.C.’s addiction to RTCs is not a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.
On a Wednesday morning in mid-November, a mother arrives at the old school building to talk about the trouble with an adoptive daughter who seemed like an 8-year-old version of Jumiya. Taking a seat at a large conference table, she faces five representatives from various government outposts: Mental health, the courts, the schools, child-welfare services, and a multi-agency coordinator.
The woman’s daughter has been in the child-weflare system since she was two months old. The girl’s biological mother has been a drug user. Behavioral problems are starting to show. She bangs her head against walls. She’s been fighting at school; during one incident, her mom says it took three adults to restrain her. “It’s like the kid has no control over what she’s doing,” the mother explains.
“I would suggest getting a psychiatrist,” comforts Jessica McClary, Hampton’s multi-agency coordinator. “It’s just a suggestion.” She mentions one organization that does outpatient and play therapy. Then the cheery coordinator says the magic words that you rarely ever hear among District caregivers: “We’ll brainstorm.”
The mother seems lukewarm on having to drive her daughter to therapy. She rattles off the multiple after-school activities she coordinates each week. Squeezing in one more car ride seems impossible. Suddenly, though, one of the administrators in the room remembers that there’s a therapist who makes house calls. The mother brings up that the daughter had stolen bubblegum and lip gloss from a Walmart. Soon a mentoring program is added to the daughter’s list of services along with the in-home therapy. After the meeting, the daughter’s future doesn’t feel so bleak.
These Family Assessment and Planning Team meetings, which are central to the city’s social-safety net, take place every Monday and Wednesday and on an emergency basis. They cover all the families in the social-welfare system and can last all day.
In 1993, in response to the rising cost of residential treatment, Virginia passed the Comprehensive Services Act for At-Risk Youth and Families. Recognizing that kicking the RTC habit required cooperation across bureaucracies, the law provided significant monetary incentives for local stakeholders—child-welfare, mental-health, juvenile justice, the courts—to work together.
“What we ended up doing was just deciding to make a commitment that we were going to create some community-based options,” recalls Wanda Rogers, Hampton’s director of human services. “Once we began to sit at the table and share that residential treatment was not what we wanted, that conversation led us to saying it is our responsibility to create those resources.”