Tucked away in a modest, two-story housing project at 235 L St. SW is a juvenile counseling center that in the words of one grateful parent "has something I couldn't get in the courts."
That "something" is the individual and family counseling program provided by the Department of Human Resources for runaways, truants and other troubled children - without first requiring that they become children in trouble with the law.
Known as the Diversion Project, the year-old, federally funded program has counseled more than 170' youths ages 11 to 18 in their homes and at the center's co-ed residential annex, the Diversion Home at 16th and T streets NW.
Although praised by the people it serves, the home is plagued by financial problems that promise to worsen this fall when its federal funding ends and competition from similar privately-run programs increase as they all jockey for city funds.
The home is equipped to temporarily house 15 youths until they are ready to return home and begin counseling with their families. The program at the home is directed round-the-clock by a counseling staff and two administrators, Jesse B. Britt and Lila Caffery. The average stay for a youth at the home is 56 days.
One recent morning a family and a 15-year-old girl walked into the Diversion Home after being referred their by court social services. They were having family problems, the guardian said. The girl didn't want to stay home and the desperate family was afraid she would run away. Two hours later the girl was a temporary resident at the home.
If a youth is eligible and there is space, emergency walk-in cases are always handled this way, according to staff members. Other families are screened at the Southwest office, usually after being referred to that office by court services personnel.
There are certain eligibility requirements: Youths cannot be on probation or have any criminal charges against them: they must have families to return home to, and their families must agree to participate in counseling.
Twenty-two employes, most of them family counselors and mental health specialists, conduct the Division Project programs. It is mostly a young, multiracial group with advanced degrees and extensive experience in psychology, teaching and counseling.
Their goal, staff members said, is to help unite estranged parents and children through family and individual counseling, tutoring, career guidance, and other activities.
Bit the underlying strength of the program is its philosophy that "when you walk through that front door you start new," said counselor Viljean Morton.
"New" varies for each family and child. For some children staying at the Diversion home, it has meant learning to relate to younger residents, and thus learning to live more harmoniously with brothers and sisters at home. Others have improved their school work or learned to communicate with their families.
"You'd be suprised at the number of children out here who can't communicate with their parents," said one mother. For that mother, it was a discovery she made when counselors began working with her family.
All accept five of the center clients are now at home, functioning in varying degrees of harmony with their families. Four are in the Job Corps, and one youth has entered the criminal justice system. But there are no failures in the program, staff members insist, only youths with temporary set-backs.
"With a program of our limited scope and the task at hand, it's just impossible for DHR to do it all," said Porgram Director Neil Hoffman. "We have no delusions of being the cure-all or panaces for (noncriminal youth). There's too many factors: housing, jobs, medical needs. You really need a whole community of coordinated services."
Other staff members agree. They said the city needs a variety of private and government-run youth correction projects that can function independently of the court system. They advocate th e development of diversion programs for criminal, as well as non-criminal youth. And they speak enthusiastically about the possibility of "Ma and Pa" Homes, which could offer supervision and inexpensive apartments to older youths who need to move away from home. Foster care and adoption programs for older children are other dreams.
"I can see all kinds of variations on this program," said Britt, his eyes shining.
"I really like this program," said Nancy Wheeler, who once worked in institutionalized programs. "I feel I can do more for the kids here. Not only give them love but also help get their families together."
Most of the children's problems are family problems, said staff member V.M. Martin. "It's not going to help me to ask (a) mother why she's beating her child (who's in the program) unless I also get into her past," she reasoned.
"But unless (problems) come out as a family issue you would'nt know about them," added Willie Banks, a mental health specialist in the program. Banks is a former Washington Redskin who studied child psychology after leaving professional football.
Presently the future of the Diversion home dangles by a slender thread. Parents said the loss of the service would be a major blow to them and their troubled children.
"Without this, my kids probably would have been in jail," said a mother of none who is raising her children alone. Three of her youngsters have already gone through the program, she said.
"They need more homes like this," added a grandmother who is guardian for a granddaughter who is in the program. "Sometimes I sit there (at the Diversion Home) and study the counselors. I think they have more patience than the parents do!"
She has one regret, though: "I just wish I'd known about it sooner."
A 16-year old girl, a former client at the home, admitted, "I could tell my counselor things I couldn't tell my mother."
Counselors attribute their ability to establish a rapport with the families to several factors. High on the list is their love for their jobs and the family counseling training they receive each week.
Family training sessions at the center are held two times a week by James Savage, a psychologist assocated with Howard University.
"I teach them theory and techniques to help them effectively engage in family therapy," related Savage. "I also want to increase their sensitivity and awareness as to how it relates to themselves and the families they're working with."
Taking the classes along with the staff members is Dr. Paul Silverman, chief psychologist of DHR's Youth Services Bureau. "There are still some things I can learn too," he said.
"I'm committed, and I think my agency is committed, to developing a range of alternatives to (institutionalizing youth)," Silverman continued. "Kids differ in their needs and the kinds of structure and control of services they need."
But developing those alternatives is not always easy. "We feel ourselves struggling desperately to get the resources to get the job done."
When they can't, "Then," he paused and smiled, "we curse a lot."