Up on 'The Hill' at St. Vincent's, a new generation of children orphaned by abuse and neglect find a safe place to rage and to heal. Story by Rob Hiassen, photography by Perry Thorsvik.
Fred is dead, although with an iguana it's sometimes hard to tell. But Fred the iguana is truly dead, and his passing requires a proper burial.
In a few moments, everyone will gather behind the green dumpster at St. Vincent's Center. Its pastor, Father Ray Chase, will preside. He will find the right words. The 12 boys of Martin Luther King House, one of six cottages at the center, will join him at the grave site. They will carry flowers and stones painted with messages: Fred, I love you!
St. Vincent's, a state-licensed group home for abused and neglected children, had a no-pets policy. Abused children sometimes, in turn, abuse pets. But two years ago, King House somehow adopted an iguana. So along with making beds and washing dishes, feeding Fred became part of the posted daily chores. Then two days ago, Fred was dead.
"It was not an accident," whispers Ellen Torres, director of development at St. Vincent's. Fred had been squeezed too hard by a boy named Sheldon, who soon after was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Another round of drama for a house of drama, King House.
Shhh. Here come the boys, walking two-by-two in the rain with their flowers and stones. Half are crying, half are trying not to. Fred's death is one more emotional hurdle for kids who have known greater pain and loss.
The boys circle the shallow grave. One boy, Chad, weeps beyond all others, as if something in him has died. Torres hugs him from behind, and Chad leans into her. Once, he'd told her, he'd watched someone in his family kill their family dog.
"God will take good care of Freddy," Father Ray assures the boys, then invites them to say a few words.
Will: "I hope God takes good care of you." David: "I hope you play good animal games in heaven. And tell God I said hi." Very nice, says Father Ray.
The boys take turns feeding dirt atop the pink shoe box. Shoulders shake from crying. "Let us pray," Father Ray says. Silence -- four, five, six beats ... heads up. The service is over. The boys walk back up the hill to St. Vincent's, to their house away from home.
A new kind of orphan
On any given day, 13,000 children in Maryland are living away from their families in group homes or in foster care. They are often victims of abuse and neglect by their parents, many of whom abuse alcohol or drugs. Almost two-thirds of these children are from Baltimore. Authorities estimate one out of five Baltimore children will spend time in out-of-home placement.
On any given day, 70 such children aged 5-13 from Baltimore and surrounding counties reside at St. Vincent's. Born as an orphanage for abandoned and illlegitimate Catholic boys in 1856, the former St. Vincent's Male Orphan Asylum has changed with the changing nature of child welfare. Birth out of wedlock seems quaint compared to the mental illness, violence and rampant drug abuse among parents that are today's wrecking balls of childhoods.
"Today's children face more trauma and more difficulties than children ever have," says Mary Maffezzoli, the administrator of St. Vincent's Center. "The children we see today have experiences nobody should experience."
Children stay an average of one year at St. Vincent's. It's a blip of time, says clinical director David Brainerd, but it contains a window of opportunity: time enough to diagnose a child's behavioral problem, begin individual or group therapy (usually coupled with medication) and create a long-term treatment plan.
"We know we're not going to cure the kid," Brainerd says. "But we look at their past and try to undo the damage. More importantly, we look forward to their future and help them with the passage."
Find them good families in good homes, he means. Of the 150 children who pass through St. Vincent's in an average year -- each at a cost of $65,000 to the state -- 85 percent are adopted, placed in foster homes or returned to their parents or relatives. The other 15 percent "age out," move on to other facilities when they reach age 13.
Until then, they live up on "The Hill," the nickname for the wooded site in Timonium the center has occupied since 1964. With room for playing fields and dormitory-style cottages, it still feels like the country here: big sky, birds galore, postcard hills.
Few who pass by its entrance on Pot Spring Road know anything about it. The work done here is private. Early this summer, though, St. Vincent's agreed to allow a Sun reporter and photographer to observe and document the center's daily routine.
In many ways, things have changed little in 143 years at St. Vincent's. Children rise at 6:30 a.m., have breakfast, straighten their rooms, go to area schools, play outdoors, wash for dinner, get ready for bed. They still miss their moms, cradle stuffed animals, want to be Boy Scouts. They fuss and fight over stupid things, thank God at every meal, and love doing cannonballs into a swimming pool.
And there are other things they have in common with their predecessors: They are still grossly devalued and mistreated. Adults the children are born to love and trust still do most of the damage. And other adults still try to help children who, on a rainy day behind a dumpster, can't stop sobbing over a dead lizard.
Little kids, big problems
"If you can work in King House, you can work anywhere."
-- St. Vincent's staff saying
It's 6:30 a.m., and snapping latex gloves sound through King House. Too often staff workers had reached to wake a child only to touch wet bedsheets, so gloves are a must.
Bed wetting is common and is charted daily. And the boys don't tease each other about it. Medication can contribute to bed wetting. Other times, "It's self-defense," explains Cyndi Mitchell-Summers, a former counselor who now oversees volunteer services. "Bed wetting was a way to keep the bad person out of your bed."
The children who come to St. Vincent's have experienced "multiple forms of maltreatment," says Brainerd.
Many have been "neglected" -- a legal term too benign given the ground it covers. "We're not talking about they had baloney sandwiches for dinner two nights in a row," Brainerd says. Some have been chained to furniture. One 5-year-old boy had been left alone for two days to care for his younger sisters, his mother nowhere to be found.
As many as 90 percent of kids here have been sexually abused. Most no longer trust adults. They may be ashamed of themselves and their bodies, may feel responsible for what happened to them. They may have learned to repeat the behavior taught them by their parents. "We have kids grooming kids to be sexual victims," Brainerd says.
Besides clinical work, St. Vincent's -- associated with Catholic Charities since 1949 -- also concentrates on its children's spiritual health. For 21 years, Father Ray Chase has counseled both children and an often emotionally spent staff. Mainly, Father Ray tries to understand how abuse has affected each child's spiritual development.
"They believe the devil is in control and God is against them or wasn't there to help," he says. "My job is to change that image."
Over his two decades here, Father Ray has learned some things, too. One is a different way of looking at the anger expressed so frequently and wildly at St. Vincent's.
"Kids are struggling to survive," he says, "and anger is a sign that the kid is alive and kicking."
Kids like Will, a freckle-faced 9-year-old who offers to show off his room. Will is one of the younger King House boys; he looks tiny compared to some older kids. Alternately scrappy and droopy, Will always seems ready to sleep -- or fight.
"This was a little hole until I punched it," Will says, showing off a gash in the drywall.
It's time for King House's daily neatest bedroom contest, one of the center's many motivational exercises. Will's roommate, Anthony, pitches in for the slow-moving Will. "I'm going to make your bed a little better -- just this once," Anthony says, tucking in his sheets.
Moments of gentleness and normality like this continually fight for equal time against episodes of anger. Anthony helps Will make his bed. A boy named William asks counselor Holly Naff to "be my mom." Tony braids the hair of a doll ("I had to take care of my sisters," he explains.)
"They look like the kids next door," Brainerd says. "Unless you are here at certain flash points."
Flash point: A routine soccer game. Chad and Dale. Chad is the size of two Dales. Dale calls Chad a "fatty." The boys square off, with Dale taking windmill punches at the looming Chad. Chad is told to "sit out," a tactic often used to avert a crisis. He slumps to the ground, wailing, "I want to die, I want to die."
Counselor Shari Feldman tries tugging him upright. "DON'T TOUCH ME!" Chad screams,fist-fighting with the air. He stalks off behind a row of bushes, finds a large stick, and holds it to his throat. Then, he sneaks up behind Miss Shari, aiming it at the back of her head. But he drops it and quickly bowls himself into Miss Shari's arms for a hug.
Flash points, acting out, sit-outs, -- the lexicon of St. Vincent's, a place where sudden explosions of often destructive behavior are routine. One boy punches another for using a Gameboy out of turn; another boy kicks out a cottage window or sets a fire or simply walks off the center grounds.
"You never know what's on their minds," says Carl Redd, a King House counselor.
This morning at breakfast, the boys eat quietly. "When things get quiet, that's when we worry," says 22-year-old Holly Naff, who, like many staffers here, is in her first job in social work.
As if on cue, Will erupts. "F--- you, buddy!" the boy screams at counselor Mike Albright, who reacts nonchalantly.
Just as quickly, Will's mood flips. "Can I please have some grits?" says this other Will, a sweet kid who looks on the verge of tears. The boy gets his grits -- but no orange juice. Its acidity counteracts his meds.
"We want his medication to work," says counselor Nekia Jones. "We definitely want his medication to work."
In these cottages of squared windows and concrete walls, the meds cart wheels up four times a day. And just as they do for snacks or the pool, the kids rush to be first at the cart, where prescriptions such as Ritalin for attention-deficit disorder or Prozac for bi-polar mood disorder are distributed.
"You don't want to get in the kids' way," jokes counselor Mike Albright.
'Why am I here?'
David, a crew-cut and wiry King House resident, has done the dishes from lunch expertly and will get an extra buck for allowance. It will be good for a run to the canteen -- home of the St. Vincent's vending machines. But right now, David wants to play football. All the football posters and pennants from donors like the Baltimore Ravens that adorn King House must rub off on the kids -- David has a good arm.
Out on the green grounds, it's quiet, a nice break from the near-constant white noise of TV and video games inside the cottage. There's time to kill, to work on your spirals. Time for kids to talk about why they think they are here, in conversations that are vague, blunt, revealing.
"They're bad," a boy named Stevie says, describing his parents. (That's progress, a staff member would later say. Stevie used to say, "I'm bad.")
"I'm here because I tried to hurt myself in an awful way," says a 12-year-old named Tony.
"My mom had a little problem," says David. "She was with a guy she wasn't supposed to be with."
Will joins in. A ladybug landed on Will an hour earlier; the omen of good luck made him smile, perhaps his first of the day.
"Why am I here?" Will asks. "I ran away and acted up." Why? "Because I'm scared." Why? "I'm scared I won't see my father again." Why? "Because he does drugs. He beats me." I'm sorry. "That's all right. It's over now," Will says.
What makes you happy? "Seeing my dad."
Does he visit? "No."
Will, warmed up now, confides more. The scar on his arm, he says, came from going through a window. He's in a street gang, he says, because it means you can carry a gun. And, "I've taken a taste of drugs before," he adds. He's talking tough, but can't pull it off.
Want to throw the football some more?
"Sure," Will says.
Building trust, taking care
For many of its children, St. Vincent's is the nicest, safest place they have ever known. Still, it's not home.
"We know children belong with families. They don't belong here forever," says volunteer coordinator Cyndi Mitchell-Summers.
"I always tell the kids:'Up on The Hill isn't the real world,'" says Adell Pearson, who has worked at St. Vincent's since 1957. Her title these days is Child Life Specialist. "One of those job titles you forget yourself what it is," she says. "This is what I do: I take care of kids."
Miss Adell (the kids also call her Grandma) and the rest of the staff find themselves thinking and acting like parents. Today, Miss Adell's morning is spent with Billy, who is ill and has been calling for ice chips, Pepto Bismol and his Game Boy.
Miss Adell cleans up after him when he vomits, wipes his face with a cold washcloth, cradles his head.
"I remember my mom holding my head when I got sick. It felt better," Miss Adell says. "It always worked."
In the early afternoon, King House unit director Ken Young calls a staff meeting. The first issue is Sheldon's return. This is not welcome news. Sheldon, 12, can be violent. He's assaulted staffers and once pulled a knife on another child. Not to mention the business with Fred the iguana.
Keep in mind he'll be with us for only three weeks until he goes to a more restrictive facility, Young says. Adds Brainerd: "Sheldon is one of us. We have an ethical responsibility to the kid."
Next up: the boys' daily regimen. Structure and consistency are St. Vincent's twin engines. Pool time for the King House boys is 6 p.m., every day. Allowances are distributed every Monday at 4 p.m. With summer on us, we need to keep the kids occupied, Young says. "You want to get these guys tired."
Elizabeth Daniels, the unit therapist, wants closer tabs kept on what the kids see and hear. That means no Adam Sandler movies, she says. No rap songs that call women "bitches." "Mortal Combat," pro wrestling, "Jerry Springer" and soap operas should be off-limits as well, the staff decides.
"Think about it," Daniels urges. "The kids come from horrible, chaotic homes." They don't need any more reminders that bad things happen.
"Now, let's talk about Will -- besides the assault charges," Daniels says. A staff member is contemplating bringing assault charges against Will. In the meantime, it's decided Will should not be touched. "He has," Daniels says, "touching issues."
Many children at St. Vincent's do. They want to be hugged. But boundaries must be maintained. Kissing a child good-night is not allowed; some children are not to be hugged at all; some can hug others only if they first ask permission. For children who have been abused sexually and physically, learning to respect their bodies and others' is a continuing education.
About Daniel: It isn't helping his mood that the foster family he's had to leave temporarily is writing him postcards from Florida. Like clockwork, Daniel "acts up" after receiving these vacation bulletins:
We have been having lots of fun. We went snorkeling on a reef. We are living in a suite right now. ... I miss you and wish you could be here with us -- but be good and don't get in trouble.
The family surely means well, therapist Daniels says. Still, "I think I'll give them a call."
By 3 p.m., the staff meeting is done. The King House boys, who have been outside riding bikes and flexing and checking for "six-pack" abs, will come through the double doors any minute. Twelve boys, some singing their theme song -- "King House rocks the house!" -- will return sweaty, thirsty and wound-up.
"They're baa-ack," a staffer says.
"It is cold, Mr. Carl!" says David, one of the first King House boys in the pool this evening.
On summer nights, swim time can never arrive too soon. The King House boys rush for trunks, goggles, towels. David wants to be timed racing the length of the pool. Nearby, Mr. Carl reclines under a pool-side umbrella. No better therapy than a swim, he says.
By 8 p.m, the trunks and towels have been stowed. In a half-hour it's lights out, and St. Vincent's is winding down. "Life," the preferred board game, is boarded for the night. Across the maze-like hall from King House, the children of co-educational Genesis House are already in their pajamas.
Bonnie is in the dining room doing needlepoint. Bonnie has been here a month, having left a foster home -- "bombed out" in child welfare slang. Typically, the children of St. Vincent's have had several placements before arriving here.
Erin's first foster home didn't work out either, so she's awaiting another placement, too. In the bedroom she shares with Bonnie, a cat poster hangs above their beds. Erin's stuffed rabbit, Snowball, is tucked in for the night. Bonnie has a Pooh Bear. The walls are a postered shrine to Justin Timberlake from boy band 'N Sync.
Half-listening to "The Lion King" video playing in the TV room down the hall, Erin and Bonnie chat.
"It was kind of scary," Bonnie says, talking about her foster home. "My foster mom would just yell at me because she thought I stole and lied. I kept calling my social worker at school, and my foster mother didn't know. I just used the phone without permission."
"I'm the most popular kid here," Erin announces. No dispute there. She's been here almost two years.
"When my dad gets angry, he throws steaming coffee," Bonnie says.
"Don't tell me anymore!" Erin says.
On the video, Simba, the young lion king, belts out his song of independence. Both girls sing along: "I just can't WAIT to be king!"
In the room next door, the lights are already out. A 10-year-old named Charlie, up to his neck under a "Star Wars" comforter, lies awake, looking at the ceiling. He slowly turns his head toward a visitor.
"Do you know what my mom used to say to me at bedtime?" Charlie asks. "Sweet dreams."
Rite of passage
Wow -- that's some pink dress on Erin. After nearly two years at St. Vincent's and one failed foster home, the 10-year-old is about to leave to try life with a new foster family. Before she does, St. Vincent's gathers for Erin's Flower Ceremony.
Father Ray will preside. He invented the Flower Ceremony as a formal way of sending children off to their new lives. In the chapel, Bonnie and other friends of Erin's sit in the pews. Counselors who have known Erin trickle in, including some who no longer work here.
Before beginning the ceremony, Father Ray lines up a row of red and white roses and carnations on the floor. In her long pink dress, Erin sits center stage. The traditional farewell meal is pizza, and Erin announces she will have mushrooms and pepperoni on hers.
As with any simple routine at St. Vincent's, nothing about the Flower Ceremony is simple or routine. Erin tells Father Ray she wants to invite the boys of King House to her ceremony. "It's not really a good time for them," Father Ray tells her; the boys finished burying Fred the pet iguana only 20 minutes ago.
Angered, Erin stalks out of the chapel, out of her own ceremony. And things had been going so well, all five minutes in a row. Father Ray finds Erin and finds the right words, as usual. She returns to the chapel, her head down, embarrassed. But no one dwells on the incident; must push ahead, always.
The ceremony resumes. It is now official, Father Ray says, handing Erin a rose that matches her dress: You are leaving us. "We've had a chance to enjoy many things about her," he says, cueing those in the audience.
"You've been a real good friend," says Bonnie. "You've shared your dresser with me." Applause. Ashley: "She tries to keep herself calm." Applause. Ruth: "I know Erin is a wonderful dancer, and she could be a professional dancer." Applause. Kevin: "I don't remember any of the bad things."
Father Ray hands Erin another flower. "You've waited a long time to have a family," he says. We all want you to go to this family and realize your full potential, he adds, filling Erin's hands with flowers as he speaks. He then adds "God's promises," as he calls them: "I promise to bless you and keep you. And I promise to look on you kindly and give you peace."
Now it's Erin's turn. "I'm going to miss you all," she says. "I enjoyed the time I was here." She hugs Father Ray, squeezes best friend Bonnie and, row by row, hugs or shakes hands with everyone.
Finally, Father Ray asks Erin to make a promise to St. Vincent's. "Do you promise us again to continue working at making good and healthy decisions?"
Yes, says Erin, who now can't stop smiling.
In the audience, Bonnie begins to cry. She is staying behind, without her good friend who has promised to stay in touch.
For Bonnie, her flowers will come.
More photographs of life at St. Vincent's Center can be found online at The Sun's Web site, SunSpot, at www.sunspot.net/features/as.
How things have turned out for some of the children at St. Vincent's Center:
Will: Transferred to Sheppard Pratt. "From the reports we're getting, he's not doing well," clinical director David Brainerd says. Will had run away from St. Vincent's and police found the boy hitchhiking.
David: Still living in King House. "He's in good spirits, not bolting away," Brainerd says. "We have a ways to go in treatment before he can make it in a family."
Chad: Still living in King House.
Daniel: Still living in King House. "We think he needs to be here for quite awhile," Brainerd says.
Sheldon: After the iguana's death and his three-week return to King House, Sheldon was transferred to nearby Villa Maria, a residential treatment facility.
Dale: Left St. Vincent's to live with a foster family in Anne Arundel County. "He's called us to say he feels safe and is doing well," Brainerd says.
Erin: After her Flower Ceremony, Erin went to live with a foster family on the Eastern Shore. "She's also doing very well," Brainerd says. "She was a kid who had a fantasy that we would always be her parent."
Bonnie: Bonnie now lives with a foster family.
St. Vincent's Center has opportunities for volunteers. Those interested can contact volunteer coordinator Cyndi Mitchell-Summers at 410-252-4000, Ext. 1606.