Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The veteran attorney will never forget how he learned that one of his favorite teenage clients, 15-year-old T.T., had died. The lawyer was waiting in the hallway outside D.C.’s juvenile courtroom 18 months ago when a case manager from the city’s Youth Services Administration (YSA) stopped to chat. “Did you hear what happened to T.T.?” the caseworker asked. “He got shot.”
The lawyer was privileged to learn of T.T.’s tragic end. After all, the caseworker, who is obligated to monitor the youth and apprise the court of status changes, never bothered to tell D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Dorsey, who was assigned to T.T.’s case. “Why didn’t they tell the judge about something so significant as the death of a client?” the attorney wonders.
Last fall, while the same attorney was preparing the bill for his services to another youth, he found out from his co-counsel that the 18-year-old had been shot after absconding from a group home. He never heard from YSA and informed the court himself of the death. And just this spring, a 17-year-old client was killed under similar circumstances. The same scenario followed. “You question how close they are in touch with their wards, when they don’t know that the [youth] has been killed,” said the attorney, who like most of the 20 lawyers and juvenile advocates interviewed for this story requested anonymity.
The lawyer’s experience with unreported deaths is emblematic of a system for disciplining and rehabilitating children that is, itself, lacking in discipline. The 36 social workers and staff at YSA, an appendage of the Department of Human Services, are charged with counseling some 800 troubled youths serving time at Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Md., or living in group homes or at their own residences. By law, the caseworkers must meet with their clients once a month and help them get access to job training, schooling, or mental health services.
In practice, though, they don’t do much of anything, according to youth advocates and a May report commissioned by the D.C. financial control board.
“The District has not developed an adequate system of keeping track of the kids and the services that they need,” says Robert Wilkins, special litigation counsel for the District’s Public Defender Service, who represents juveniles in a lawsuit aimed at achieving better services. “YSA does not hold case managers and others in the system accountable for providing those services.”
The District’s juvenile delinquents have rarely fared well in the hands of YSA. In the 1980s, the agency crowded 300 children into three centers where some guards routinely beat them and drug sales were rampant. The detention center in Cedar Knoll, Md., was a hazard in itself: Holes in the walls went unrepaired, and safety and fire-code violations uncorrected. Despite the dismal facilities, the District maintained one of the highest juvenile incarceration rates in the nation.
The neglect prompted a 1985 lawsuit by public defenders representing juvenile delinquents. In a landmark settlement, the city agreed to treat kids whenever possible in their own neighborhoods or in group homes scattered around the District. The relocation of troubled youths to residential settings was accelerated by court orders mandating the closing of Cedar Knoll in 1992 and the D.C. Receiving Home in 1995. Over the past decade, the population of Oak Hill has fallen from just over 200 to 130.
The dispersal of juvenile delinquents has also put YSA in a bind: Instead of evaluating clients in a central location, caseworkers now have to track them down across the city and then figure out how to steer them from the streets. In 1996, the court assigned a panel of experts to evaluate the program and recommend changes. The recommendations they issued are simple: YSA’s management has to make social workers accountable to their clients.
That recommendation requires a revolution in YSA’s MO. The agency, to begin with, has no way of finding out exactly what the case managers do during their work day. The system requires that they attend court, meet with children, and do home visits. Supervisors, however, don’t follow them through the day. YSA policies and procedures read like a parody of bureaucratese. One undated handout, titled “Organization Order,” which lays out procedures for case managers, proclaims that it supersedes “0.089 of 10-27-83 and 0.0154 of 08-08-87.”
Consistent with D.C. government standards, YSA’s computer system is outdated and so difficult to use that the case managers eschew it, leaving no record for supervisors to track. Employee evaluations mean little. “You won’t find many employees written up as unsatisfactory,” admits former YSA interim Director Wayne Casey. “It isn’t something supervisors want to do.”
In the absence of effective evaluations or tracking, the case managers can set their own agendas. “Too often, I saw reports that were essentially boilerplate reports with the child’s name and address filled in,” says Ron Sullivan, a lawyer who left the Public Defender Service within the last year and still handles a small number of juvenile cases. “In too many cases, the child is not being monitored. I’ve been to many hearings where I was present, the corporate counsel was there, [but] the representative from YSA was not present.”
Without attending court or evaluating the children, YSA social workers have no way of knowing whether they have learning disabilities, mental handicaps, or other problems requiring special treatment. One of Sullivan’s recent clients suffered a serious mental illness that was apparent by age 16. According to Sullivan, the girl lapsed into psychotic delusions and was charged with assault during one of her episodes.
The YSA case manager failed to find long-term mental health treatment for the girl, who bounced from one short-term treatment program to another. Once Medicaid funding for her treatment ended, YSA checked her into Oak Hill, essentially a prison for children. There her condition deteriorated. She’s now 18, and neither Sullivan nor the case manager can place her in an appropriate program, she’s too old for a children’s home and too young for adult care. “This is an example of a child falling through the cracks because we didn’t deal with the problem in a sensible way two years ago,” says Sullivan.
Ironically enough, incarceration solves a lot of problems for YSA social workers, but not the kids. Once in prison, the kid escapes the temptations of the street. YSA procedures require the case managers to visit only once monthly, and supervisors don’t enforce this requirement. Take, for example, the case of “Thomas,” who was 11 at the time of his arrest for armed robbery, his first felony charge. In 1996, after Thomas had racked up a number of minor offenses, his mother asked for assistance from YSA in reforming him.
Thomas was assigned to YSA case manager Kathy Washington, who insisted upon incarceration, according to the mother. What the boy really needed, argued his mother, was mental health and substance abuse counseling. After Thomas tested positive for drugs, YSA finally sent him to a treatment facility in Virginia, but he allegedly stole a car and escaped. His punishment was a stint at Oak Hill, where he completed his GED but then backslid. “He was just sitting there; he was doing nothing,” his mother says. “He was not in school. He’s just sitting there eating, sleeping.”
Last fall, a judge ordered Washington to complete an evaluation of Thomas, which the mother and the boy’s attorney had requested long before. “[At first] I didn’t have time to get the assessment,” says Washington. “[The mother and attorney] were pressing for me to get him a placement.” On the basis of the evaluation, the judge ordered that Thomas be placed in an acute care mental health facility in D.C. His mother says that the youth, now 17, is finally getting some of the care she had requested three years earlier. “There is nobody who can look out for [the kids],” says the mother. “Mostly what they do is plea bargain, and next thing you know, most of those kids end up in the big jail or they are dead.”
Thomas, nonetheless, may have been luckier than “Egdar,” a 17-year-old who has been committed to YSA for two years. Edgar complains that his case manager, Leroy Thorpe, has talked to him only twice in the last five months. Edgar had spent five months in treatment out of town before a judge released him in December. At that point, the judge ordered the boy to attend a special school. Thorpe, however, didn’t arrange it, the boy’s lawyer says. After the boy returned to the District in January, he remained at home, with nothing to do, for six weeks, a dangerously long period of unstructured time for a teenager tempted by crime.
Thorpe denies the youth’s allegations and says he’s considered one of the best caseworkers in his division. He adds that his reports are used to train master’s degree candidates at Howard University. Two attorneys also give Thorpe high marks, one praises the quality of Thorpe’s reports to the court and the other notes his concern for children. “Leroy Thorpe is the only one of the case managers who has actually said, ‘I made a mistake that can hurt your client, and I’ve got to correct it,’” says attorney Charles Canty, who has two clients assigned to Thorpe. Canty says he only wishes he could count on such commitment from every case manager: “Sometimes it’s a power struggle to get these people to do what they’re supposed to do.”
To put caseworkers closer to their clients, YSA is moving them from their run-down quarters at 25 M St. SW to offices in housing projects and other community locations. The move is part of a broader reform effort directed by YSA administrator Gayle Turner, who started July 7. Turner is a former regional director of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice.
Turner will face the usual hurdles confronting reformers in the D.C. bureaucracy. Last year, the YSA budget was cut from a proposed $48 million to $37 million. Most of the residential detention centers available to youths are far outside the city, and they cost about $100,000 per year per child, according to Madelyn Andrews, Department of Human Services spokeswoman. The District houses about 100 youths in these facilities. Money is a constant problem, as recently as 1997, delays in payments to vendors resulted in food shortages at Oak Hill.
Casey points to positive changes at Oak Hill as an example of improvements planned for all of YSA. Since February, the department has instituted a work schedule, held retreats and training sessions, and hired new employees to reduce spending on overtime. “This is not an overnight process,” Casey explains. “Even if it has taken more than 10 years, in the last seven months, we’ve turned things around.”
But Oak Hill is not yet a model of effective management. Children aren’t even getting a legally adequate education, according to public defender counsel Wilkins. At least two YSA social workers started their careers in Oak Hill during its dangerous days and have not been adequately trained in new ways of handling children, according to the control board report.
YSA has attracted qualified administrators with aggressive reform plans in the past who have made little headway against what one city legal official calls a “culture” of apathy, frustration, and contempt. “The way we work with kids brings out the worst in them, and it brings out the worst in staff,” observes Marty Beyer, a psychologist who has monitored YSA for more than a decade.
The control board report on YSA draws similar conclusions. “A number of workers expressed feelings that the kids…did not deserve to leave Oak Hill,” says the report, which is supposed to help guide the YSA reform. “What has been allowed to occur is the evolution of attitudes and practices that are inherently obstructionist and indicative of the lack of leadership….Maintaining, surviving in one’s job, and outlasting the reformers guides this ship.”
Social worker Washington insists that conditions outside YSA, not within it, pose the most formidable impediment to reform. “It’s been tried before,” Washington notes. “How are you going to have [reform] with families where the parents use drugs? One of my children is homeless….To provide a child services, you can’t do that kind of service if the child doesn’t have a home. You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis.”
Whatever the obstacles, Casey has a message for YSA’s foot soldiers: “I’m itching to fire someone,” he says. “We’ve got to hold someone accountable. We don’t have the luxury of a child not being treated because an adult didn’t do the paper work.” CP