Monday, September 20, 2010

Worse than foster care: Scandal at America's most famous orphanage

Last April, I noted on this Blog an excellent series of stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the problems plaguing many of that state’s latter-day orphanages.   As one story reported:

Fights. Sexual assaults. Consensual sex between young teens. Abuse by foster parents and group home employees. Escapes. Suicide attempts. All occur with regularity at many of Georgia's 336 private foster care agencies, the Journal-Constitution's examination found.
                But it’s not just your obscure, run-of-the-mill orphanages that are plagued with problems.  Every few years, a newspaper reveals big trouble at one of the model institutions – the very places orphanage advocates point to in support of their calls to warehouse children.

                In 2001, it was SOS Children’s Village in Florida.  The South Florida Sun-Sentinel revealed that between 1999 and 2001 33 reports were filed with Florida’s child abuse hotline alleging abuse of children at the 50-bed facility; 21 were "substantiated" or "indicated."  During the same time period 13 "house parents" and 14 "parent assistants" quit or were fired.  (So much for that argument you always hear from orphanage proponents about how the places provide “stability.”)

Then came Maryville, one of the places to which media flocked after Newt Gingrich proposed throwing poor people’s children into orphanages if their parents couldn’t afford to raise them after welfare “reform.” In 2002, the main campus at Maryville, near Chicago, was revealed as a place of terror for many of the children confined there, according to documents obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.  The newspaper reported that “the place is often up for grabs, with staff struggling to handle suicide attempts, sex abuse, drug use, fights and vandalism…” In 2001, police were called to Maryville 909 times.

In 2004, Illinois pulled all 270 state wards out of Maryville – something it could do because it had done such a good job of reducing needless foster care.  In Illinois, substitute care no longer is a “sellers market.”

And now scandal has reached the very pinnacle of American orphanages – the very place Gingrich himself cited as the perfect place to stash poor people’s children.  The Omaha World-Herald reports that the State of Nebraska has suspended admissions to two programs at Boys Town.

The reason: “investigators found staffers improperly restraining and isolating children.”

According to the World-Herald: “Staffers at a Boys Town National Research Hospital program, for instance, sometimes placed children face down on gurneys and locked them into place with belts. They used the practice, which has been discontinued, to prevent children from harming themselves and others.”  The story also reports that “A program director at the hospital reported 19 times in the last year that drugs were used to calm patients, although Boys Town says it doesn't use drugs.”  A Boys Town official said the state must have misquoted the program director.

The decision to suspend admissions is all-the-more remarkable since it was made by the state child welfare agency in Nebraska.  There may be no child welfare agency in America more in love with taking away children and holding them in foster care.  When NCCPR compares states we compare entries into care and the number of children in foster care on any given day.  And we use both the fairest method, comparing to impoverished child population, and comparing to total child population.  Year after year, only one state is among the three worst states in all four catagories: Nebraska.

Will the problems at these particular programs be fixed?  Sure.  Boys Town will implement a “corrective action plan” and the programs will clean up their acts – just the way SOS and Maryville did.  And things will be fine.  For awhile.  But when you’re dealing with a population that is either hated or feared that is out of sight out of mind, sooner or later things will deteriorate again.

And no corrective action plan can correct for the fact that institutionalization is inherently harmful and almost always unnecessary.

In the meantime, if what that program director reportedly said is true, perhaps Boys Town needs to change its famous slogan.  How about: “He’s not heavy, he’s overmedicated!”