Letters to the Editor

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What Happened At Maryville

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
Alexandria, VA

The notion that Maryville [Academy] became a hellhole because poor, kindly [Executive Director] Father Smyth “did not know how to say no” is hogwash. [“At Treatment Centers, It’s Time to Adapt or Perish,” March.]

Back when Illinois had more than 50,000 children in foster care and was shipping state wards all over the country, there is no record of Father Smyth stepping forward and saying “Wait! Don’t send those poor children away; give them to me!”

The “difficult” children didn’t come to Maryville until a few years later. By then Illinois had radically reformed its child welfare system to emphasize safe, proven programs to keep families together. The foster care population plummeted – today, there are fewer than 20,000 Illinois children in substitute care – and, according to independent monitors, child safety has improved.

That’s when Illinois brought all its foster children home. And only then did Father Smyth start to take them. He had to. They were the only children left. It was take those children or go out of business.

The very fact that Maryville no longer houses the children it used to shows that all those children never needed to be institutionalized – and neither do many thousands of others at all the other Maryvilles around the country.

Your story on Maryville is filled with other myths, both in terms of what’s included, and what’s left out.

• There’s that photo of the smiling father Smyth surrounded by adoring children at a rally “staged” on behalf of Maryville.

“Staged” is the operative word. The story doesn’t mention the children who didn’t want to be stage-managed. They complained to independent monitors that they feared being punished if they didn’t attend – and already had been punished for even discussing news stories about Maryville. It’s probably hard not to feel intimidated when you’re forced to live in a closed society where the leader has a giant statue of himself greeting visitors outside the main entrance.

• There’s no mention of the Chicago City Council meeting where a parade of Maryville apologists was allowed to speak, only to have the meeting adjourned before children abused at Maryville could tell their stories. Had she been given the chance, 16-year-old Ramissa Maat would have told the Chicago aldermen that Maryville “is very unsafe. There have been numerous incidents where students have been raped by staff members and other students. My friend committed suicide because she couldn’t handle the stress of living there.”

• There is no mention of the assessment of Father Smyth’s tactics from Ron Davidson, director of the Mental Health Policy Program at the University of Illinois-Chicago Department of Psychiatry. The Chicago Daily Herald reported that, according to Davidson, Smyth “created a ‘culture of fear’ … in which he threatened, in ‘verbal tirades’ and ‘vulgar insults,’ to fire senior officials if they told police and child welfare officials of problems there.”

• There’s no mention of “Project Sunshine,” the plot hatched by Maryville’s public relations firm to smear anyone who dares criticize the institution. Of course, Maryville officials were shocked – shocked! – when they read the plan and insist they refused to put it into effect. But they didn’t fire the firm that thought it up.

• The full extent of the danger to children at Maryville was buried deep in the story, and minimized. This is not about one or two horror stories. This is about 240 “very serious” incidents in one seven-month period. This is about what police call at least one “mob action.” This is about independent monitors saying the entire institution was dreadfully unsafe. And this is about a girl who left her “cottage,” was gang-raped, and says that when she tried desperately to get back into her own cottage, the “house parents” refused to let her in. She says they had to write her up for running away first.

Your article is the latest in a long line of apologias for Father Smyth and for Maryville: It illustrates one more reason why institutionalizing children is so dangerous.

No matter what “model” you use, once poor, mostly minority children are warehoused out of sight and out of mind, almost no one will come to their defense, and almost everyone will rally ’round the institution. That is one more reason why institutions are such dangerous places for vulnerable children – and why the only real solution is not to institutionalize most of those children in the first place.

William C. Watson
Media Relations
Maryville Academy
Des Plaines, IL

It is unfortunate as well as inaccurate to state in your subheadline that Maryville is “shut down.” [“A 120-year-old residential program is shut down for moving too slowly to handle severely troubled youth.”] It is, in fact, open, and there are 80 wards of the state of Illinois residing on the Des Plaines campus, along with about a dozen private placements from other agencies and youth placed by their families. It is further misleading to refer to the “demise of the campus” when, in fact, an academic enrichment program is being developed, reviewed with DCFS [the Department of Children and Family Services] and will hopefully be put into place this fall to serve both wards of the state and private placements.

To say that Maryville is “shut down” would imply that the other 15 locations have also been closed, which they have not. Maryville operates the largest shelter in Illinois at its facility in Chicago, as well as a number of other facilities for the developmentally delayed, teen parenting and medically complex youth, and the Scott Nolan Center.

We would also like to point out that the reference that the FBI is investigating Maryville might be misleading. We are unaware of such an investigation. Maryville was issued an administrative subpoena by the U.S. attorney to hold financial and administrative documents. There has been no indictment, mention of individuals or of any criminal activity. We are not aware of the nature or status of an investigation and are told that the U.S. attorney has not disclosed that information to any other party or parties.
As for quotes from our own Maryville people, we appreciate your honesty and accuracy.

Editor’s note: We hope there was no confusion over the subheadline, which says that a residential program was being shut down. It was not intended to imply the same of the entire Maryville Academy. The story says that Maryville continues to run numerous other youth programs and has plans for new programming at the Des Plaines campus.

Helping Kids After Trauma

Dr. Bob Pynoos, Co-Director
National Center for Child Traumatic Stress
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA

John Fairbank, Co-Director
National Center for Child Traumatic Stress
Duke University
Durham, NC

In “Rethinking Trauma Talk” (December/January, 2004), there is reference to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. The network is positioned to address the questions raised in the article about the design and provision of early interventions after catastrophic violence or disaster.

The network’s School Crisis and Intervention Unit has already established a curriculum that moves beyond the debate about crisis debriefing by providing school districts with a much more comprehensive public mental health approach to school-based readiness, response and recovery programs.

Your article highlights the importance of improving our ability to identify children who would benefit from services, our ability to provide such services and our ability to measure our successes. We are making strides in all three regards. In the coming year we expect to issue a Tool-kit for Hospital Personnel, Domestic-Violence/First Responder Proto-cols, Trainings on Child Traumatic Grief, and a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy/ Sexual Abuse Implementation Toolkit. More resources for the field are in development. For more information, please visit www.NCTSNet.org.

Confusion Over ‘Detained’ Youth

Steven Kossman
Director of Court Services
Adult Probation Department
Peoria, IL

An article titled “For Detained Youth, Horrors in California” [March] talks about conditions in facilities in California to which juveniles are committed. This misidentification contributes to the public’s confusion about what “detention” is.

With 32 years behind me in the juvenile justice/criminal justice field (23 years of juvenile detention responsibility), and having been president of the National Juvenile Detention Association, it hurts when these terms are misapplied. I suppose that a dictionary definition of “detained” would include those juveniles who are sentenced to correctional facilities, but because it also identifies those juveniles who are in juvenile detention facilities, it lumps together two groups that are quite separate and distinct.
I am asking that you distinguish between these different types of facilities and the different functions that they serve.