Thursday, February 8, 2024

Residential treatment: Can the scent of Pine Sol cover up the stench of abuse?

Rhode Island State Rep. Patricia Serpa says she can tell things are soooo much better
at a residential treatment center because "I could smell the Pine-Sol"

Ever wonder why “residential treatment centers” almost always look so good?  It’s amazing how much these places, which always claim to need even more money, lavish on making sure the grounds are gorgeous the “cottages” are nicely painted and the lawns are mowed.  Then they invite public officials on a carefully guided tour.  

The amazing thing isn’t that these places keep pulling this stunt, the amazing thing is that it works! 

The latest to be snookered is Rhode Island State Rep. Patricia Serpa, who chairs that state’s House of Representatives Oversight Committee.  She and other officials got the full guided tour of St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence. 

Here’s what’s been happening at the place they are so anxious to save, according to news accounts summarizing a 119-page report from the state’s child advocate. 

“Staff-on-child physical assault, youth stealing the program van, overdoses, a high number of AWOLs, neglect and an overwhelming number of responses by the North Providence Police Department.” 

From just the beginning of April through May 8, 2023: 

There were more than 20 calls to the CPS hotline, they found, including allegations of drug overdoses, sexual contact among the children, staff assaulting children, runaway children, and an overwhelming amount of police responses, the [Office of Child Advocate] said. 

That’s just the start.  The Boston Globe did its own investigation and found that, at an institution with only 39 beds: 

The North Providence police were called to St. Mary's more than 300 times in the past two years, mainly for children as young as 8 running away, according to 317 pages of police call logs obtained by the Globe through a public records request. … 

North Providence Police Chief Alfredo Ruggiero Jr. told the Globe things are so bad that when runaways are found by police “there’s a part of us that our hearts are breaking” as they bring them back.

Neighbors such as Andrew Marsalli and his partner Ken Richey said they would often hear children screaming.  Marsalli recalled 

the boy with cuts and bruises who showed up at his door asking for help. 

"The boy would say, 'Please don't let me go with them. Don't let them find me,' " Marsalli said. "He would just come knock on my door to talk. But . . . they would know where to find him." … One time, Marsalli and Richey said, they watched in horror when two staff members tackled the boy in their yard and hauled him away. They said an ambulance was called because the boy's arm had been yanked back. 

Then there was the girl placed at St. Mary’s by Rhode Island’s family police agency, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), because she’d been sexually assaulted and was at high risk of being sexually exploited.  She ran away several times.  Twice she was raped.  When her mother sued, St. Mary’s said the child “had assumed the risk of injury.” (The suit was settled.)  St. Mary’s is not the only residential treatment center to make that horrifying claim

And then there was the whole matter of the institution bringing in a bunch of bikers to help patrol the place. 

The head of DCYF, Ashley Deckert, admitted St. Mary’s was awful, but in a comment stunning for both its callousness and its candor, she said that because Rhode Island doesn’t have enough places to put kids, St. Mary’s is a “too big to fail situation.” 

As I pointed out when I wrote about St. Mary’s for Rhode Island Current, what she did not say is that the lack of places to put kids is because Rhode Island tears apart so many families needlessly – at a rate 80% above the national average. 

Pine-Sol to the rescue! 

But great news everyone!  After her definitely-not-a-surprise inspection, Rep. Serpa says things are soooooo much better now!  How does she know?  She told WPRI-TV: 

“What I saw today was encouraging.  The facility is clean. I could smell the Pine-Sol, I could smell the fresh paint. The kids’ rooms were kids’ rooms — they were messy, but an organized messy.” 

Of course!  Everyone knows children are never abused in rooms that smell of Pine-Sol!  And who would ever want to run from a room that was freshly painted?   (Where was Serpa expecting to see kids stay – in dungeons?)  

Deckert took the tour too.  Deckert, more than any other individual, has a vested interest in downplaying any problems at the places where her agency institutionalizes children.  And sure enough, she called the progress “tremendous.” She, too, made a point of saying the place “smells nice.”

 No wonder DCYF is moving full speed ahead on a plan to spend $11 million in taxpayer funds to expand St. Mary’s.

Fool me once … 

This isn’t even the first group of Rhode Island officials to buy into this routine.  As we discussed in our 2010 report on Rhode Island child welfare, the chief family court judge for many years, Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, fell in love with an institution in Pennsylvania; the Glen Mills School.  As we explained in our report: 

[I]n late January of this year, Jeremiah suggested that Andrew J. Johnson, a lawyer and director of the Rhode Island Court Appointed Special Advocate’s office, visit Glen Mills to see what their program has to offer. Johnson flew to Philadelphia, at the school’s expense, where a school van drove him the 22 miles to the school in Concordville, Pa. He met with admissions officials, toured the campus and talked to students.  “It’s a remarkable place,” Johnson said after he returned. “Step on the campus and it’s like a prep school or a university ... .” 

Again, that was 2010. 

It will probably not surprise readers who have gotten this far to know that the Glen Mills School was closed.  After the Philadelphia Inquirer exposed rampant, horrific abuse, the state of Pennsylvania shut the place down.  Unfortunately, they’ve now allowed the place to reopen on a (for now) much smaller scale.  The place has a brand new name.  It’s run by a new corporation headed by a former Glen Mills executive.  

And presumably, it has a good supply of Pine-Sol.