In January, a 9-year-old, chronic runaway known as Rodney, was sent to live with a foster family in Harrisburg, Pa.
The home was almost a last resort, Rodney had run away from his grandmother's home and every other home he had been placed in, and D.C. officials had been unable to control the problem.
Rodney's method of running away was simple. After his mother died in 1976, Rodney would board a long distance bus and ride wherever it took him, providing the driver didn't ask for a ticket.
Now, six months later, Rodney (not his real name) is still running. But he no longer runs away without notice. Before each trip he calls his Pennsylvania guardians from a bus station to let them know he is going. And now, instead of running away from his grandmother, he runs to her.
It's progress, said Minette Gordon, Harrisburg director of the Pennsylvania Youth Advocate Project (PYAP), which coordinates the foster care program to which Rodney has been assigned.
The model project is an alternative supervision program for problem youths who might otherwise be imprisoned. Youths are assigned to the PYAP by the court and the project then places them with foster families.
Local people, known as advocates, befriend the child and the family, offering counseling, tutoring, field trips and other activities from 8 to 30 hours weekly. The court has the authority to assign youths in trouble to such programs either in Washington or out-of-state.
When Rodney first left for Harrisburg, "We did tell him he could visit his grandmother," Gordon said.Five months after Rodney arrived in Pennsylvania, she said Rodney decided to make the visit on his own. On four occasions before he first ran, Gordon said Rodney called from the bus station to tell her he was going to Washington. He had then waited for her to come get him. In later weeks he just called and left.
She admits, "We blew it in not immediately recognizing the importance his grandmother holds in his life. He's a very bright kid, but is not the kind of kid to sit down and tell you what he needs."
He now freely tells them, "I've still got to see Mom (his grandmother). There's no one who can take the place of Mom," Gordon said. Therefore he is not frequently brought to Washington for weekend visits with his grandmother.
Recently Rodney and 17 other Washington youths in the project met at the Holiday Inn on New York Avenue to celebrate their academic and social progress with a banquet and awards ceremony. The event was arranged by York, Pa., program director Ted Woodson.
Tom Jeffers, director of the PYAP, also attended the ceremony. The program has projects throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey, said Jeffers. They are currently meeting with the Department of Human Resources (DHR) to set up a similar project here, he said.
As the beaming youngsters accepted their engraved plaques and certificates of merit, city government officials, parents, foster parents, PYAP personnel and advocates of community-based supervision programs for troubled youth eagerly applauded them.
"I think this program is one of the best around," said Desire, a 15-year-old who says she'll never live in Washington again because "there's nothing here for me." (Parents of other Washington youths agreed).
"I start my summer job Monday, my mother's very proud of me and she wants me to keep up the good work," the girl said.
Desire was cited for high scholastic achievements and her smooth transition from the eighth to the 10th grade in Pennsylvania, despite missing the ninth grade in Washington public schools because she was in Cedar Knoll, one of the city juvenile institutions. She will go to the 11th grade in September.
Keynote speakers included Superior Court Judge Robert A. Shuker, Jerry Miller, a pioneer in youth advocacy work who succeeded in convincing various states to close their juvenile prisons, and an attorney from the Antioch School of Law.
William Barr, director of the Social Rehabilitation Administration of the Department of Human Resorces, was also present with SRA youth officials.
Judge Shuker spoke of his frustration over the limited city programs for youths and commended the Pennsylvania project. He told the youths, "I'm very happy to be seeing you people in this setting and not court."
"Go on and tell them about it," said Rodney in full agreement.
When it was over, the bright-eyed youngster bounded around the room like a frisky colt while his solemn, 15-year-old uncle sat quietly waiting for him.
As Gordon talked of the boy's "tremendous energy," outgoing personality, and the athletic skill that recently won him a track award at his school olympics.Rodney seemed to illustrate all these traits at once within what seemed like a few moments.
He showed off his certificate, ran down to see the hotel pool, made a few leaps around the room, tried to balance a chair on his head and called his grandmother to tell her he was coming to see her before he reluctantly settled down to talk.
"Pennslyvania is too dirty and too quiet," he said quickly. "I like here. It's more fun. Minette's all right. Sometimes she lets me go to her house and play with her kids."
Asked why he ran away, Rodney said, "People blame me for everything. Then I hit the road."
Later he admitted, "I was missing them (his family). I like to come see my uncle, grandmother and my dead mom.I should say my mom who passed away," he hurriedly added, as if remembering the correct form of expression.