D.C., Howard U. partner on Southeast Washington facility for troubled girls

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

For years, the District has had few options for girls involved in serious crimes. The female detention center at the old Oak Hill complex in Laurel was a decrepit mess before it was shuttered. Since then, the city often has had to choose between sending such girls to faraway facilities or sending them nowhere at all and instead supervise them in the community, as happens with most delinquent boys and girls.

It's one of the reasons the District has hundreds of troubled children living at great expense in private facilities around the country, and it is one of the reasons why juvenile justice officials for years have been talking about creating a local all-girls' facility for some of the more serious offenders who've been committed to the custody of the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

Come next month, the agency will finally have a place for some of those girls. A new, privately run facility is to open on a quiet block in the Marshall Heights neighborhood of Southeast Washington. The 5,500-square-foot house, built in 2007 and renovated by the operators of the new program, Metropolitan Educational Solutions, will take a half-dozen girls at the outset. Some will be returning from distant facilities, while others are at risk of being sent to such places, known as residential treatment centers.

With a partnership planned with Howard University, the Lillian D. Worthington Residential Facility is intended to serve not only as a home but a bridge to education beyond high school -- in a vocational training program, community college or four-year university.

Unlike a group home, where residents usually leave to go to school, the residents of Worthington will have their primary classroom on site, similar to residential treatment centers.

And when the residents, expected to range in age from 15 to 20, do venture out, say, for a lesson at a museum or a visit to Howard, they will be escorted by facility staff just as they would be at a residential center, officials said.

The program is one small step in the District's effort to reduce its reliance on distant residential centers to house children caught up in the juvenile justice, child welfare and mental health systems.

"For too long the District has sent lots of its children to states all over the country," DYRS Interim Director Marc Schindler said. The contract with Metropolitan, a for-profit corporation that also operates a group home for boys in the District, is an important step in building better options, Schindler said. "We have to invest in our communities."

A study last year by University Legal Services, a federally mandated watchdog program for people with disabilities, found that more than 300 young people from the District were in residential treatment centers, with scores of them in facilities more than 300 miles from the District. The annual cost in local and federal dollars was more than $60 million, according to government statistics cited by ULS. Today, about 120 DYRS youth are in such centers, and about 25 of them are girls, a DYRS spokesman said.

Community presence

Jennifer Lav, a ULS attorney and the author of the 2009 report on residential treatment centers, said that if the girls are to benefit from being in the city and near their families, the new facility can't be just like the places the girls are coming from or would have gone to. "I think the question is, what will the new facility look like? Will it be an institutional placement or are we building a group home that's really engaged in the community?"

While some of the youths sent to residential treatment centers have serious medical or behavioral issues that require highly specialized care, some who end up in them through the juvenile justice system simply lack the option that boys have in New Beginnings, the 60-bed juvenile detention center opened last year to replace Oak Hill's facility for boys.

Boys make up the majority of the juvenile justice population in the District -- and elsewhere -- so the system has evolved around their needs. But advocates are increasingly urging officials to give more attention to the particular needs of girls. Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report that Maryland was shortchanging the girls in the state's juvenile justice system But even as some officials shift their thinking, budget cuts have made it difficult to sustain the programs already in place, let alone launch new ones, and that is partly why the new D.C. facility has been so slow to get off the ground, said Linda Harllee Harper, who is overseeing the project for DYRS. "The money wasn't there."

Building partnerships

Catholic University, with its campus in Northeast Washington and its school of social work, was DYRS's original choice for the facility, Harper said. But that never came together, and when the Marshall Heights house, which had been built to be a group home, became available, DYRS decided it was its best shot to make the project a reality anytime soon. Howard and its social-work school were enlisted, and the agency and the university have been working on a partnership agreement.

As they walked around the house last week, pointing out the pink-and-purple bedspreads and the stylish furniture from Ikea and the huge sofa in the TV room, Metropolitan's leaders Valdez D. Mumford and Rosalind Lockwood-Brooks are bubbling with enthusiasm, excited that after months of planning and renovations, the girls will soon be arriving.

Both have been teachers and administrators, and both worked for a time in schools operated by the private educational company EdisonLearning. Now they are embarking on another private-public venture that will enmesh them even more in the lives of the young people they are serving.

Only when pressed do they concede even a little anxiety and uncertainty. "We want to say that if the girls come here, they will all be successful," Lockwood-Brooks said. "But the reality is, we just don't know. What we do know is we're going to do everything we can to make them successful."

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