Discipline woes lead to turmoil at home for girls HD: Only 6 of 32 beds filled at Crittenton

January 24, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

For decades, the old stone mansion overlooking the mills of Hampden has been a refuge for pregnant and abused teen-age girls. Today, shaken by internal conflict, challenged by the behavior of increasingly troubled girls, squeezed by changing state policies, Florence Crittenton Services is struggling to survive.

Some employees and former employees blame the turmoil on Crittenton's administration, saying managers permitted girls' behavior to get out of hand and failed to support staff attempts to restore discipline. The result was an atmosphere in which some residents and staff members feared for their safety, they say.

"When a girl would get aggressive with a staff member, you'd have the rest of the clients looking on as spectators," said Shen Titus, who left in frustration in mid-December after a month as child-care coordinator. "Sometimes they'd jump on the staff member, or they'd cheer on the aggressive resident."

'Staff are secondary'

Anne S. Davis, Crittenton's executive director since 1977, said the problems have been exaggerated. Crittenton is the victim of a vendetta by a handful of disgruntled employees, she says: "When you begin cracking down and making people toe the line, vTC there's some unhappiness. We're here to service the children. The staff are secondary."

Ms. Davis acknowledged, however, that Crittenton is in trouble. Only six of its 32 beds are filled -- far below the occupancy of "probably 18 to 22" the facility needs to break even, she said.

Ironically, the crisis has developed even as work is completed on a new, $2.1 million dormitory, more than half of it paid for with state bond revenues. Crittenton officials hope the new, 40-bed building willallow them to build their revenues back up by developing new programs, including a plan to allow teen mothers to live at the facility with their babies. But the opening of the new building, set for next month, also may underscore the gap between the number of girls Crittenton could serve and the number actually in residence.

Complaints from current and former employees prompted the state Department of Human Resources to suspend placements Oct. 5. The department lifted the suspension Dec. 8 after a review determined that the problems were being handled adequately, said Jean Clarren, director of the department's office of child placement resources.

Ms. Davis and other Crittenton managers and board members attribute the steady decline in census over the past 15 months partly to state policies that put new emphasis on leaving children with their families whenever possible. Ms. Davis also says the girls referred to Crittenton in the last year or so have been far more troubled than ever before and says some staffers have had difficulty coping with them.

Growing violence

"The kids we're seeing are sicker," she said. "It's a problem for everyone in the whole human services area." She said some girls referred to Crittenton are not accepted because they are too disturbed to be handled by the agency, which is not a locked facility and is in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Police have been called on several occasions during the last 18 months, as behavior problems at the facility boiled over. At least twice, police led some girls away in handcuffs following disturbances. Baltimore Police Sgt. John Cree described Crittenton as "out of control" last October but said that since then, police have been called only when girls have run away.

The discontented employees and former employees accept that the girls referred to Crittenton today are more seriously disturbed than those of a few years ago. But they say the main problem is inconsistent discipline policies that led to chronic behavior problems.

"I find it very tragic that an agency like Florence Crittenton would come to the state it's in," said Anthony L. Batten, a 14-year veteran of the agency and former child-care coordinator, who has been on medical leave since August.

Mr. Batten said he thought the quality of Crittenton's program had eroded steadily over the past three years. A half-dozen other current and former employees agreed, blaming Crittenton's administration, though most declined to let their names be used, saying they feared retribution. Interviews with a few former residents and parents painted a mixed picture.

Mr. Titus, the former child-care coordinator, who has worked at similar facilities in other states for 14 years, said Crittenton was ill-equipped to handle more troubled, more aggressive girls.

Crittenton needed clear guidelines for dealing with aggressive behavior, which included daily verbal threats and abuse from girls and several cases of "all-out aggression" during his month on the job, Mr. Titus said.

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