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Maryville is losing control: report says academy is a ‘dangerous’ environment

The Rev. John Smyth on Thursday greets a child playing with David Armitage, a worker at the shelter. | Sun-Times file photo.

Maryville Academy’s City of Youth — Illinois’ biggest haven for abused and abandoned children — is “dangerous,” and key group homes are “in a state of crisis,” according to government reports obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The sprawling, picturesque campus in Des Plaines led by a revered Chicago priest now takes in from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services a greater percentage of mentally ill kids than it did previously. And the place is often up for grabs, with staff struggling to handle suicide attempts, sex abuse, drug use, fights and vandalism — warning signs that Maryville isn’t meeting kids’ psychiatric needs, according to the reports and other state records.

Maryville and its acclaimed executive director, the Rev. John P. Smyth, have never faced such scrutiny because child-welfare advocates, wealthy benefactors and politicians have long sung his praises for turning the once-destitute Roman Catholic orphanage into a national model for child care.

Smyth’s treatment program, lauded by DCFS 20 years ago, is now out of date, according to reports from Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy and a psychologist DCFS hired last year to evaluate Maryville. Staff turnover and pay are major issues, they conclude, and Smyth’s methods have a way of exacerbating violent behavior by Maryville’s most troubled kids.

That has everyone in the state’s child-welfare community worried. With 250 kids, the City of Youth is too big to shut down. So state officials say it must be reformed, with a goal of putting fewer youths there and giving them more psychiatric care.

Smyth met behind closed doors Aug. 22 with several agencies that are demanding change. Participants included Murphy, DCFS Director Jess McDonald and Ben Wolf, associate legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has brought numerous reforms to the state’s child-welfare system by filing federal lawsuits.

Maryville’s own psychiatrist admits kids aren’t getting adequate care at the Des Plaines campus, where it costs Illinois taxpayers about $70,000 to house a ward of the state for a year.

“My role is very limited. I think the amount of psychiatric time they need is certainly more than I give,” said Dr. John Costigan, who spends about eight hours a week on the campus where 115 of 250 kids are on psychotropic drugs, which can include tranquilizers and mind-altering medicines.

The combined weight of all the parties has caused the Archdiocese of Chicago, which oversees Maryville, to take notice.

“You’ve got at least four of these parties with Maryville seeming to agree–and they never agree on anything–that to be successful for the future, Maryville’s going to have to change its campus program at least partially to put in these clinical elements,” said Jimmy Lago, the archdiocese’s chancellor.

The criticism has caused Cardinal Francis George to question whether Maryville can handle the kids DCFS is sending there.

Well-intentioned but ill-equipped

The problems began about five years ago, when DCFS stopped shipping troubled wards to locked facilities in other states, deciding those kids–and any future ones like them–could get better, less-expensive treatment in Illinois.

Smyth, who has been at Maryville for 40 years, welcomed dozens of them.

“Smyth is stubborn, and he’s a saint,” said Murphy, the chief lawyer for all state wards from Cook County. “He said, ‘I’m going to take these kids because if I don’t take them, who will?’ ”

In the spirit of Maryville’s religious foundation, Smyth “felt he could deal with these new kids by giving them a lot of tender loving care and support,” Murphy said. “He was wrong.”

A juvenile judge last year became concerned with the number of Maryville kids charged with crimes, alerting DCFS officials, who also were growing alarmed at the violent nature of state-mandated “unusual incident reports” Maryville must file. Murphy, who also gets those reports, said his staff noticed those trends as well, sending letters to DCFS and Smyth.

In response, Smyth requested that Dr. Ronald H. Davidson, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, perform a top-to-bottom review of the City of Youth and other Maryville programs.

Davidson has sparked a major restructuring of Maryville’s Scott Nolan Center, a smaller facility for about 60 kids that Smyth also operates in Des Plaines. Similar reforms have yet to begin on the main campus, though Smyth has made minor changes, including hiring additional staff.

Murphy’s staff has praised Smyth for the overhaul at Nolan, but the main campus remains “dangerous and anything but therapeutic,” a Murphy staffer wrote in a mid-June memo forwarded to Smyth.

Des Plaines police have logged reports on 543 incidents at the main campus during the first seven months of this year. Nearly 350 were for kids running away–a problem Smyth said should be expected at an unlocked treatment center where state law prohibits staff from physically stopping kids from leaving. “If I was here, I’d run away too,” Smyth said.

McDonald said all runaways should be taken seriously.

“Is he feeling unsafe where he was? Is he running to something?” McDonald said. “All runaway behavior is indicative of something. It just isn’t a wild kid. It’s absolutely a serious clinical issue. It can never be dismissed.”

There are more serious incidents, too, according to police reports and state records the Sun-Times obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Among those that alarmed Davidson:

• At least 40 girls and boys were involved in what police called a “mob action” in May. One girl had a knife. Others were wielding fire extinguishers, brooms and metal-buckled belts. Three police departments responded.

• A 7-year-old boy in a unit for sexually aggressive kids was reported to have been sodomized by another boy in June.

• Five kids, ages 11 to 16, attacked a 35-year-old male staff member in November. They “dragged [him] outside and proceeded to strike him with closed fists and kicked him all about his body,” and then ran to his car and threw rocks at it, police reported.

• An employee supervising a group home in June where two girls were out of control called for help and was told, “Lock yourself in the office and let the girls do what they will.”

• A staff member began having an “ongoing sexual relationship” with a girl in September 1999, a relationship reported to DCFS in January 2001.

• A 14-year-old girl hanged herself in a bathroom shower in February.

• Two others, a 9-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl, tried to kill themselves within a week’s time in July.

Engaging in malpractice?

Those two suicide attempts highlight Maryville’s tendency to avoid seeking psychiatric help, according to Davidson and Costigan.

After removing a cord from the boy’s neck, a Maryville worker calmed him down and sent him to bed. No mental health professional was called, sources told the Sun-Times.

Costigan, the part-time psychiatrist, did examine the boy a few weeks later, but he wasn’t told the boy said he had made three suicide attempts.

“The kid attempts suicide, you’ve got to call right away,” concluded McDonald, the DCFS chief. “This is a kid who has to be observed in a psychiatric setting. This is not in the range of normal behavior.”

In the case of the suicidal teen who spent two days running in front of cars and threatening to drown herself, mental health officials were called and determined she immediately should go to a psychiatric hospital. When the ambulance arrived, she refused and ran to Smyth.

The teen “was told by Father Smyth that she did not have to be hospitalized,” stated the report filed by Maryville staff with DCFS.

Costigan was called by a mental-health worker from the Kenneth Young Centers, a DCFS consultant Maryville must call before a kid can be placed in a psychiatric hospital. The worker was afraid to hospitalize the teen against Smyth’s wishes.

“If everybody was afraid of going against Father Smyth, then I said you need to call that in as medical neglect to DCFS,” Costigan said. “If Smyth and Maryville didn’t go along with . . . the recommended treatment, that was medical neglect. It was a real event because Father Smyth got involved.”

She later agreed to go, and Smyth let her. He declined to comment about both suicide attempts.

Both Smyth and McDonald, Davidson said, are to blame for what he calls a situation “that scares the hell out of me.”

Recalling a meeting he had with the two last October, Davidson said he told them, “Up until this point, you’ve simply been negligent. From this moment on, I’m putting you on record, if this continues, then you’re both engaging in malpractice.”

Smyth takes offense with Davidson’s characterization that Maryville is “in crisis.”

“There were no problems. No problems at all. None,” Smyth insisted. “They were incidents we’ve taken care of. They’re not problems that linger.”

McDonald acknowledged Maryville has problems, just like any facility that treats troubled kids.

“I contend Father Smyth knows he’s got problems,” McDonald said. “He may have a problem accepting bad news.”

Power struggle

Since the 1970s, Smyth has prided himself on treating all the kids he takes in using the family-teaching model, a disciplinary system that rewards them for conforming to rules and attempts to train them for life in a foster home or, if possible, back with their families.

Davidson earlier this year scrapped the family-teaching model at Maryville’s Nolan Center, the locked psychiatric facility that faced the same violent problems that plague the City of Youth. Davidson’s reforms have significantly reduced violence at the Nolan Center, convincing him that the family-teaching model should be scrapped from most of Maryville’s flagship campus.

“Family teaching has outlived its usefulness with the kids we have,” Davidson said.

Under pressure from Davidson, DCFS and the American Civil Liberties Union, Smyth has agreed to Davidson’s recommendation for greater psychiatric treatment at the main campus, which Davidson predicted will lead to more Maryville kids on psychotropic drugs–something Smyth abhors.

“I have a hang-up,” Smyth said. “I don’t think as many kids in DCFS should be on psychotropic medicines. Some kids have to be. I know that. But when you have little kids on three, four, five, six medicines, that’s overdoing it.

“Our goal is to get them off medication so they can function.”

Murphy, the Cook County public guardian, believes there is a middle ground between Davidson’s and Smyth’s philosophies.

“You don’t want to pump the kids up with anti-psychotic medications,” he said.

“The family-teaching model is still the best model as long as the clinical component goes with it,” Murphy said.

The debate illustrates a power struggle between DCFS and Maryville, which took in $63 million from Illinois taxpayers last year to operate 22 facilities that care for as many as 500 kids on a given day. Half are at the City of Youth.

Today’s kids have lived in as many as 50 places before DCFS placed them at Maryville.

Their psychological conditions include depression, attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s not unusual to see a kid with severe depression where they are suicidal,” said Mitch Bruski, CEO of Kenneth Young Centers. Some kids hear voices in their heads, he said. Others are sexually aggressive.

Maryville’s plight, however, reaches far beyond treating those kids.

It touches on religion, where the Archdiocese of Chicago–already besieged by the priest sex-abuse scandal–is confronting issues of children being abused on its property.

It touches on Smyth’s legacy. Now 68, the former basketball star at Notre Dame who shunned pro ball for a life in the priesthood has won the admiration of the late Harry Caray, whose mourners gave about $400,000 to Maryville; rock legend Pete Townshend, who will perform a benefit concert for the charity Sept. 23, and countless others who have helped him amass an endowment of $130 million as of last summer.

It also touches on clout, which Maryville used earlier this year when a board member got Gov. Ryan to give Maryville an extra $4.5 million in the middle of the state’s fiscal crisis.

A few weeks later, Ryan got Maryville’s Standing Tall award, a small statue of Smyth holding a child.

Maryville wanted more state money to meet Davidson’s recommendations for extra staff and training. The money was spent on raises for Maryville’s low-paid staff, additional employees at the Des Plaines campus, the hiring of a full-time psychiatrist at the Scott Nolan Center–the treatment center for the Maryville system’s most troubled kids–and a retraining program for staff at Nolan.

Davidson is demanding that a full-time psychiatrist be hired to work with the kids at the City of Youth, and he wants that psychiatrist to be a tenured professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

By having a tenured professor at Maryville, Davidson said, it could become a training ground for psychiatric students who need to serve internships.

McDonald and Smyth share blame for Maryville’s problems, Davidson said he told them late last year.

“I summarized the findings we’d made . . . by saying to Jess and Father Smyth, ‘We’ve got basically one big problem here and each of you have at least half the responsibility,’ ” Davidson recalled.

“I looked at Jess and I said, ‘DCFS has been pouring kids into Maryville that are severely mentally ill and conduct-disordered, who act out aggressively, who hurt themselves and who hurt others, and it’s beyond the capacity of this facility to cope with. And that’s negligence on the part of DCFS.’

“I looked at Father Smyth and I said, ‘Father, your half of the problem is that you have been too kindhearted and, frankly, naive to say no.

“You’ve got to stop it now.’ “