Rodney, a cherubic-faced 9-year-old, stood in front of Superior Court Judge Gladys Kessler with his hands thrust deep in his pants pockets. His moppet brown eyes ping-ponged between lawyers, social workers and judge as they tried to decide his future.
What will we do with Rodney? they asked.
During the past 14 months, Rodney (his name has been changed) has lived a revolving-door existence. For the past three months, he has been held in the District's Receiving Home for Children, where the maximum detention is supposed to be 72 hours. Although, eight facilities, three of them detention centers, have served as temporary homes. He has lived with family friends, with a foster grandmother, in a city-run shelter house and in a foster home.
The Social Rehabilitation Administration, part of the Department of Human Resources, is responsible for finding Rodney a home, SRA has had difficulty doing so, in part because Rodney has run away from almost every home in which he has been placed. The agency reports it has been unable to find a secure, residential facility, either in the city or elsewhere. Some out-of-state facilities were said to be less than eager to accept District cases because of low reimbursement rates and late payments a complaint denied by SRA officials.
Rodney is no stranger to the court system. He has appeared in court about 15 times - five times before Kessler. Some of the court proceedings, Kessler said in an interview, have sought to determine Rodney's age. He is 9, according to birth records. But until recently, SRA social workers and psychologists were not sure whether Rodney was 9 or 13 because of conflicting documents in his file. Without knowing his age, Kessler said, proper placement could not be made.
"The notion that these people (SRA) did not know thow old this little boy was 'was terrible," said Kessler. In an earlier court hearing, she said, an STA psychologist testified that knowing the boy's correct age would make a significant difference in his evaluation report.
"This psychologist said if he was 13 then he was borderline retarded. If he was 9 he was a very bright boy," commented Kessler. "I know he's very difficult to place," she said, "but he hasn't been in a home in along time." He needs a home, she said.
In August, 1976, Rodney, then 8, was left homeless by the death of his 31-year-old mother at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Cause of deaths is still uncertain, but autopsy reports suggest, the possibility of a brain tumor, said the lawyers handling Rodney's case.
Whereabouts of Rodney's family are unknown. His parents had separated long ago. According to one court report, he was one of nine children; according to another official record he was one of four children.
Rodney had a singular method of running away. He would walk onto a bus and, if no one asked for a ticket, he would go whereever it took him. He turned up in New York City, Baltimore and North Carolina. His "grandmother" finally brought him into the court system in October, 1976, as person in need of supervision (PINS), a legal designation for runaways, truants and youths with behavior problems. Many are placed under care of the Social Rehabilitation Administration, administered by the Department of Human Resources.
When Rodney first entered the court system, he would ask for his mother, said Barry Kowalski, one of the lawyers on Rodney's case. At one point he told a close family friend, "They cut off mommy's hands and feet," but wouldn't explain what that meant. He no longer asks for his mother, Kowolski said.
After Rodney was committed to the SRA for help, a psychologist recommended that he received individual counseling, along with family and group therapy, as soon as possible. But he hasn't been placed in a facility where he could receive such counseling, said his court-appointed lawyers from the juvenile delinquency clinic of Antioch School of Law.
Under SRA guidelines, out-of-state requests for placement can be made only to one facility at a time, explained Antioch law student Kathleen Kroll, who is helping represent Rodney. Since it can take 30 to 60 days to receive an acceptance or a rejection, the placement process is slow. In addition, Kroll told the court, homes that contract to provide such services have told her they are reluctant to accept children from the District because of the SRA's low reimbursement rate and its reputation for paying late. Consequently, Kroll added, some facilities willing to accept Rodney demanded full payment in advance, while others expressed reluctance to renew SRA contracts unless reimbursement rates were increased.
"The real problem with placing this child is he's a runner," commented George Baker, an SRA official who deals with placing neglected children. "He has a history of running. Prior to his mother's death, he had been running a long time. A private institution that knows a child is arunner is reluctant to take him.
"Most of the private contractors are treatment-oriented," he continued. "You can't treat a child unless he's in placement."
During the three months Baker has handled Rodney as a neglect case, he said, the youth has been referred to four facilities. One was deemed unsuitable by a department psychologist, and two refusal to accept him because of his running away. The fourth referral is pending.
Regarding the department's standing with child care service providers, Baker said the SRA paid bills monthly and he knew of only one institution that refused to accept any more children unless their rates were increased.
In addition, Rodney now has a charge of delinquency pending as the result of one of his runaway incidents Aug. 24. Rodney was arrested for trespassing on restricted property at Union Station. The courts issued an order to have him detained at Cedar Knoll, a juvenil detention center in Laurel. Placement in another facility would be made soon, SRA told his attorneys.
A few weeks later, the lawyers said, they received anonymous telephone calls from Cedar Knoll counselors who told them Rodney and other youngsters were being physically abused by kids at the center. On Sept. 30 he was moved from Cedar Knoll to the Receiving Home for Children, a city detention center. Again, the SRA assured Rodney's lawyers that residential placement would follow shortly. To date, after three months, Rodney is still at the Receiving Home for Children.
FOr Kowolski, a professor at Antioch and head of the juvenile clinic, Rodney's problem is not unsual. He said the school has represented nearly 400 children in three years, and many have gone without help from the SRA or the courts. Or the children committed to SRA, about 15 percent have been sent to special treatment facilities, the rest have gone to the Children's Center, he said.
Finding secure residential facilities has been the biggest problem, Kowolski said. "Another problem is getting information. Many times they (SRA) don't have it. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing."
Kowolski's point was unexpectedly illustrated in court as Baker began to list the out-of-state facilities that no longer had contracts with the agency. Kessler interrupted him, stating that only a few days before an other SRA social worker had tried to get the court to refer a youth to a facility the present worker are now saying had no contract with the SRA.