Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Jumiya Crump was on the run. It was close to 9:30 p.m. on July 1, 2009. “I just left,” she blurted into the phone. “I don’t know what to do.”

So Jumiya, 16, started walking. From downtown, she moved east, in the shadow of a freeway overpass, past a public housing complex. A Metrobus got her over the Anacostia River. Another short walk brought her to her grandmother’s house off Minnesota Avenue NE, the safest address she had ever known.

“I have nothing but the clothes on my back,” she had said, her voice flickering in and out. “I really don’t know what to do. Like seriously.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Hours earlier, Metropolitan Police Department officers had taken Jumiya to the Southwest headquarters of the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. She had sat on a bench in the first-floor lobby waiting to find out why. Her own social worker had gone home. A stranger broke the news that she would soon be transferred to an out-of-state residential treatment center for disturbed youth. She felt like she had no choice but to flee.

Jumiya had come into the system as a victim, not a criminal. In July 2008, her grandmother called police after spotting jagged welts on Jumiya’s arms. Cops took her to Howard University Hospital. She was asked to shed her clothes as authorities documented old scars and burns.

Subsequent statements from Jumiya, her four-year-old brother, and her grandmother accused Jumiya’s mother of doing the damage. In an interview, her mother says a burn was accidental; she says the injury that brought Jumiya to the hospital that day had come from a simple purse strap. But “we had a physical altercation” in the past, she says. Jumiya left the hospital as a ward of the city.

The District’s safety net had caught Jumiya, but now it had to parent her. For a kid like Jumiya, this meant group homes and curfew checks, lots of tough kids but few nurturing adults. She ended up running away a lot. To her social worker and other government caregivers, this meant she was unstable, a liability. It didn’t matter that she always ran home to family.

That night wasn’t Jumiya’s first escape. It wouldn’t be her last. But something was different. She felt abandoned. Her mother had regained custody of her siblings. Jumiya, on the other hand, was being locked away. Was she a fugitive?

The next morning, Jumiya looked the part in old jeans and a T-shirt, her skinny braids loosened into a wild frizz. We’d been meeting for a month as part of a Washington City Paper investigative project on kids in the child-welfare system. Now, at a McDonald’s near RFK Stadium, she simply put her head on our table. No need to look up.

Jumiya should have been a routine case. She had no criminal record. She wanted to go to college. She had a steady, responsible boyfriend. In calm moments at home, she’d watch Law & Order SVU or Full House reruns and play with her little brother and his toy cars. She could talk your ear off about the Redskins and gush over Hello Kitty ephemera. Now she barely felt like talking. The beatings, she said, were easier than this. “It was less stressful,” she explained.

What Jumiya was finding so oppressive was a child-treatment approach that government agencies across the country have been turning away from during the past 15 years.

Once seen as child welfare’s necessary evil—pretty places to send your delinquents—residential treatment centers (RTCs) are now commonly viewed as statistically dubious money pits. In places as varied as Wisconsin, Tennessee, and New York, they’re now disdained as emblems of systemic failure. Instead, authorities are keeping kids close to home—or even with their families—while ramping up the sorts of local outreach and counseling that don’t prompt teenagers to run away.

In the District, though, RTCs remain the bedrock of the system. As of February 2009, according to a city administrator’s report, more than 500 D.C. kids were housed in 96 different facilities from Florida to Minnesota to Utah. Another 2009 report, from the nonprofit advocacy group University Legal Services, concluded that the percentage of D.C. students in institutionalized settings is higher than any state but South Dakota. The city administrator noted that the District spends roughly $61 million in federal and local money annually on this outsourcing.

What this money buys the District is a system that has racked up scores of complaints, charges of abuse, and the creeping sense among child advocates that kids put in RTCs—whether they arrive as victims like Jumiya or as underage offenders referred by the city’s juvenile-justice system—come out worse than when they went in.

Compounding the problem, the perpetual availability of RTCs undercuts efforts to enact reforms that have succeeded elsewhere. Why go through the work of finding ways to offer kids like Jumiya crucial social services at home when out-of-state placement is always a few bureaucratic steps away? For government social workers, residential placements amount to an addiction—a disincentive to offering the programs that scholars now say can best help at-risk kids and families.

“[My mother] don’t want me,” Jumiya told me before she finally left for an RTC in early September 2009. “So why am I getting punished?” More than a year and $100,000 later, District residents should be asking the same thing.

This year, residents of the District of Columbia have learned a lot about graduates of city-affiliated RTCs.

Take for instance, Alante Saunders, 19. In November, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the shooting death of Shaw Middle School principal Brian Betts at his home in Silver Spring. In and out of the juvenile-justice system on robbery charges, he’d been identified as someone in need of treatment for alleged sexual abuse as victim and perpetrator, city records show. In May 2008, he was placed in an RTC in Georgia. In August 2009, he admitted to “sexual acting out incidents” at the RTC. In December, he was placed in a “therapeutic group home.” Four months later, he murdered Betts.

And Reginald Rogers, 18. He was arrested last March for the shooting death of Calvin Woodland. Rogers had been in and out of the system for several years on drug and weapons charges. On April 14, 2009, he was sent to an RTC in Arizona, his second such stint. Four months after his discharge, he allegedly murdered Woodland, the brother of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s chief of staff.

Kurtis Faison, 18, had done stints in facilities in Virginia, Maryland, Florida, and Minnesota where he was supposed to receive substance-abuse treatment. Nine days after his release, he allegedly shot and killed Melvin White, 27, off Benning Road.

Finally, there’s Sanquan Carter, 19. Law enforcement authorities believe that Carter’s alleged murder of Jordan Howe over a missing bracelet led to a March drive-by shooting that killed four teenagers along South Capitol Street. Carter had been in an RTC between June and November in 2008. After his release, he would continue to pick up charges until his murder arrest.

Unlike Jumiya, these kids came into the system on criminal charges. But like Jumiya, they arrived with personal demons that RTCs were supposed to treat. To the advocates, lawyers, and officials who monitor the work of RTCs, the institutions’ lack of success was not at all shocking. One lawyer admitted that more than half of his clients that were sent to RTCs went on to commit crimes after their release. “Coming out of residential treatment,” said another attorney, “none of them have their lives changed.”

City officials admit as much, too. “A lot of the youth that have gotten in trouble—many of them have gone to psychiatric residential treatment facilities,” says Marie Morilus-Black, the D.C. Department of Mental Health’s Children and Youth Services director. “[The facilities] didn’t fix them. It helps but often it’s not a sustainable change.”

“I don’t see the benefit of RTCs,” says Dr. Roque Gerald, director of child and family services. “They are overly expensive and they have not shown research-wise any benefit for kids.”

Stats going back more than a decade confirm the notion that RTCs are not much of a fix. A 2000 Department of Justice study reported a 90 percent recidivism rate among RTC graduates. “In the past, admission to an RTC has been justified on the basis of community protection, child protection, and benefits of residential treatment,” said a U.S. Surgeon General’s report from a year earlier. “However, none of these justifications have stood up to research scrutiny.”

They don’t hold up that well to other kinds of scrutiny either. The District’s own inspections of these facilities by city workers reveal that these places were far from tranquil respites. A 2009 report by the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the city’s juvenile justice agency, showed that one facility isolated District children for their first two-to-six weeks. The children called the isolation unit “the dungeon.” Other reports have lambasted more prosaic problems (1, 2), from dingy facilities to broken furniture to overcrowded rooms to kids found sleeping in hallways.

Investigations repeatedly knock the therapeutic efforts, too. One outside study showed that 63 percent of RTC residents in education programs “made no or minimal progress.” The District’s own officials found non-existent treatment plans for city wards and diagnoses that went unaddressed, records show (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Obesity is a recurring problem. They also found RTC staffers who lacked an understanding of the impact of trauma, falsified treatment records, and often locked families out of the treatment process. One inspection revealed the stress of living in these places: “Several clients’ hair is falling out…a complaint was made of physical and verbal abuse by staff.”

Why do RTCs work so badly? You could make a pretty good case that their sylvan setting distracts officialdom from their basic flaw: The facilities are tremendous concentrators of pathology and dysfunction—the very things kids like Jumiya were supposedly being removed from D.C. in order to avoid. In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a study of residential facilities and found that in one year—2005—34 states reported 1,503 incidents of abuse and neglect by RTC staff. One year earlier, the agency found that 28 states—including the District—reported at least one death in these facilities.

In 2008, one D.C. managed care organization which serves kids with the highest needs, reported that the majority of its “unusual” incidents took place in RTCs. For fiscal year 2009, the Department of Mental Health reported 301 “major” incidents involving children at RTCs. This does not include incidents reported to other agencies. But to put it in context, there were just 440 incidents reported by local providers who serve some 15,000 people.

University Legal Services, in its 2009 study, reported complaints including beatings, chokings, excessive use of restraints, abuse of incapacitating drugs, and prolonged isolation-cell stints. The report further highlighted the work of one Pennsylvania RTC that housed eight D.C. child-welfare youth. For those youth, the facility conducted 214 incidents of physical restraint and 37 incidents of chemical restraint in just one year.

Sources, court records, and incident reports obtained by Washington City Paper show several District children attempted suicides (1, 2, 3, 4), one 16-year-old District ward was raped by an RTC staffer who hadn’t had a full background check, and many others suffered abuses including restraint bruises to the face and arms, a staff-inflicted broken arm, staff-resident trysts, and extended isolation over minor infractions like stealing candy from a cafeteria; one resident had been in isolation for five months. And those are just the incidents reported to the city. Too often, violent episodes go unreported.

No wonder the prospect of an RTC placement didn’t feel all that nurturing for Jumiya. The idea scared her, she e-mailed an advocate: “How will me and my mothers relationship [be] better? What changes will be made? How will this process better my life?…I toss and turn in my sleep every night not knowing what to expect.”

By the time she was placed in an RTC, Jumiya had already demonstrated that she could thrive in less frightening, less costly environments. Six months before her July 1, 2009, escape, she was placed in a temporary foster home in suburban Maryland. For the first time since becoming a ward of the city, Jumiya didn’t run. When her social worker arrived, she insisted on showing off her bedroom.

Jumiya’s foster mom had offered to help her decorate her room. Jumiya had picked out a pink-and-purple comforter set, a matching nightlight, and a small pink circular rug. “I just wanted to stay there,” she recalls. “I told the social worker…But, they took me out of the house.” Jumiya lived there for three weeks—the foster mom had only signed up as a temporary placement. She no longer remembers the foster mother’s name or where she lived. Today, the experience is just a sentence in her child-welfare records.

But when her temporary stay ended, Jumiya was back at the mercy of a city that had repeatedly failed her. According to child-welfare records and e-mails, the city did not enroll her in school on time. For one scary 24 hours, she was homeless; when she couldn’t reach her social worker, she ended up having to call CFSA’s emergency hotline. For her first year as a city ward, Jumiya did not get a single therapy session to address her traumatic history. “She got nothing,” says a source familiar with her records.

During one group-home stay, other girls jumped Jumiya; police were called. Jumiya had warned her advocates that she didn’t feel comfortable at that facility. They sent her anyway. “The youth didn’t really have a voice,” explains one of her caregivers. “[The city] already knew what the plan was: Get her out of the way.” Those who have reviewed Jumiya’s records say it appears clear that, early on, officials decided she should be steered toward an RTC.

A judge signed off on such a placement in February 2009. Through that spring and summer, Jumiya’s social worker and other advocates chased her around town, hoping to put her in residential treatment. At one point, a CFSA administrator and a city attorney pushed to get DYRS to lock her away in its Youth Services Center, where kids with criminal charges go. Jumiya could run from social workers. But she might not run from the police.

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.

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.”

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.

Later that week, Jumiya would get caught smoking marijuana in her McMansion. In early October, Jumiya had to go to D.C. for a dentist appointment. Before the appointment, she visited her mother. Her mother cut the meeting short. As soon as Jumiya arrived at the dentist appointment, she ran away. For several days, she stayed with her boyfriend’s family.

She went back to Youth for Tomorrow, but a week later, Jumiya escaped for good. She had almost gotten into a fight and had to be physically restrained. The incident injured her hand, she says, and she was rushed to a nearby emergency room. From there, Jumiya was able to hitch a ride to the nearest Amtrak station and took a train into D.C. She headed straight for her boyfriend’s mother’s house in Congress Heights. (A Youth for Tomorrow spokesperson declined comment.)

Jumiya felt that she was backsliding. She was tired of being lumped in with other angry, confused girls. Residential wasn’t working. She remembered that Labor Day weekend with her aunt. The child-welfare agency had promised that they would work to get her a foster care license. Why were they taking so long? She decided to e-mail her family-court judge:

“I need help. I feel as though I made a lot of improvements to just throw everything away. I am constantly getting bullied in school not physically but verbally. I feel unsafe. I have been in several different altercations (physical & verbal). I have a huge goal and it is to finish high school but the extra conflicts and stress is not helping at all. I talked to my social worker about this conflicts but shes just like talking to a brick wall…

“I want to be close to my family. I can’t go on weekend passes. They won’t allow me to work to kill my free time. I want an emergency hearing to discuss finding me a better placement and to also discuss why it’s taking so long for them to license my aunt so I can live with her.”

Her mother was nowhere near ready to take her. “My house is so quiet now,” she told me while Jumiya was AWOL. “She’s been out of the house for two years…I was tired of her anyway.”

Child-welfare officials would later inform Jumiya of a bitter reality within the child-welfare system: As long as she wasn’t complying at the residential facility, she could not live with her aunt. She would get only two choices: Go back to the RTC or transfer to a mental hospital. She would accept neither.

After a week, Jumiya still needed somewhere to live. She called me to meet up. She, her boyfriend, and I wandered the city—she checked e-mail at MLK Library, shot hoops at an Adams Morgan park, and paced around the fountain at Dupont Circle, blasting hip-hop from her boyfriend’s iPod. When she stumbled on a gay wedding ceremony, she insisted on cheering for the happy couple.

Just before 5 p.m., she dialed her social worker, her fourth since coming into care.

“I know I ran away again,” Jumiya said. “I really need help…I just need help. I’m scared. I’m upset that I don’t have a lot of support right now. I’m getting very tired.”

“Can I call you back?” the social worker cut in. “Hold on a second.”

This story is the first in an occasional series about D.C.’s child-welfare system.