Today, Hampton has zero kids in RTCs. Rogers and other agency heads say the key to the makeover, which realized cost savings, was flexible funding and imaginative thinking. Among other things, Hampton engaged a school for its most disturbed children, developed a family-locator service to track down relatives who might take in a child, and stepped up recruitment of especially skilled foster parents. But mostly, they emphasized keeping families together; no matter how much they spent per family, it still never equalled the cost of an RTC placement. If a grandparent needed money to build an addition to house extra grandkids, the city found the funding.
Currently, Hampton’s social-safety net handles 450-500 children a year that enter through the school system, child-welfare, and juvenile justice. The operating budget for all their efforts is just $7 million. The District spends more than eight times as much sending the same number of kids to RTCs.
Hampton is hardly unique in moving away from RTCs. Even Texas is advocating de-institutionalizing. Tennessee has cut its RTC and group-home placements by more than half—to less than 10 percent of its foster-care children. Kansas and Indiana also have built successful alternatives.
According to Bruce Kamradt, the director of Wraparound Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest city started emphasizing local alternatives back in 1995, when almost 400 of its kids were in residential treatment. Today, only 80 are in RTCs. Morilus-Black helped lead a similar effort in Buffalo, N.Y., prior to her move to DMH. She achieved a 40-percent drop in RTC use.
After a day full of meetings in Hampton, I headed over to Mark Hinson’s foster home. Hinson had worked at an RTC. Fourteen years ago, Rogers recruited him to run a specialized foster home for the city’s most at-risk youth.
Hinson keeps kids just long enough to be stabilized so they can return to their families. All the same, they’re the sorts of cases the District would refer to RTCs. On this night, they included a pair of mute, autistic teenagers, a 14-year-old with an extensive rap sheet (assault, burglary, grand larceny), a pint-size kid unafraid to belt his own mother, and mental hospital veterans.
I chatted with a 17-year-old in Hinson’s spacious kitchen. He says his family had put him in more than 20 hospitalizations. He’d been living with an aunt and uncle. But in one recent episode, the uncle had hit and spanked him. After the incident, he had a mini-breakdown and refused to live with his relatives. Instead of being hospitalized, the city decided he should move in with Hinson.
“I just wish I was listened to,” he explains. “To at least…not just be heard but to be understood. I had no say.” Now he does and he has begun to stabilize. A new report card shows he more than made the honor roll. “I think this is the best place that I’ve ever been in…It gives people chances.”
Jumiya spent 11 months in North Spring Behavioral. She was able to get prescription glasses, meds, and counseling for her anger—all simple things the District could have given her without sending her away to a place that felt like jail, and without spending more than $250 a day to do so. Meanwhile, in at least two crucial ways, the RTC set her back. Although it provided school, she’d find out later that the District wouldn’t count all her credits toward graduation. And she did not get help mending the relationship with her mother. Jumiya’s family today is just as broken as the day she came into custody.
In August, after her mother refused to take her back, Jumiya was transferred to a less-intense program at Youth for Tomorrow, a residential facility located along back roads south of Potomac Mills. The facility, founded by former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, consists of a small cluster of bland McMansions and a school. At the end of the summer, families were invited to a country fair at the facility. Jumiya’s mother was told that she could spend two hours with her daughter. Jumiya used the time to dote on her baby brother, taking him on the moon bounce. Her mother barely acknowledged her presence.
Jumiya’s mother worried about how her phone needed charging. After her two hours were up, she declared that she wanted to leave—even though it was clear she could stay longer. As the extra time ticked by, Jumiya’s mother grew frustrated. At one point, she walked away from her children and put herself in “time out.” After a year in two facilities, Jumiya and her mother said they had only had about four therapy sessions.