The small, mop-haired 6-year-old wears glasses that make his eyes look big, but you can't see them much because he keeps his head down a lot. He barely speaks and, when spoken to, slips down in his chair. Sometimes, he slides under the table.
That's when one of the therapists at Lansdowne's tiny Therapeutic After School Program -- one of two in Baltimore County -- will say something, very casually, to nudge the boy back into the group of six.
School officials say the programs, run by Catholic Charities' Villa Maria organization, produce remarkable improvements in troubled children. But they are due to lose $175,000 in grants -- half their budget -- by July because of changes in how the state Mental Hygiene Administration dispenses money, and it's not clear how much will be replaced.
Villa Maria administrator Mark Greenberg says negotiations are under way with the state to assure full funding for the programs, in Lansdowne and at Villa Maria's headquarters on Dulaney Valley Road near Loch Raven.
The 4-year-old Lansdowne program started in the basement of St. Clement's Roman Catholic Church Rectory and moved to the half-empty former Lansdowne library building in 1995.
A school referral
Most of the children get to the after-school program through their schools, mainly Baltimore Highlands and nearby Riverview elementaries, after teachers have tried all they know to help.
"The school system has so much service you can offer, and you get to the end of the line," said Baltimore Highlands Elementary Principal Patricia A. Mattson, a 34-year educator.
The Lansdowne program has two groups of up to eight children each, one for 5- to 8-year-olds, the other for ages 7 to 12.
Therapists Carl Fornoff, Christine Calabrese and Jennifer Brinker pick up the children after school in agency station wagons, and take them to the old Lansdowne library building on Third Avenue, where the small program rents space. They give the children refreshments and work with them until 6 p.m. each day.
The children concentrate on simple concepts: staying with the group, using words to express themselves instead of hands and feet, getting control of their bodies. The therapists offer a steady stream of soft praise and reminders.
Some children never master these concepts before they start school; others regress when bad things happen or when some slight opens old emotional wounds. Still others have such problems as hyperactivity or learning disabilities that keep them in trouble and lonely.
"These kids don't have basic building blocks," said Andrea L. Alexander, director of community-based programs for Villa Maria.
Children spend a few months to a year in the program, and the staff keeps in touch after they leave. During the day, the staff works with parents and reviews the cases. The medical director is a licensed psychiatrist.
Without the kind of steady, year-round help the Villa Maria after-school programs give, many children would drop out by high school, Mattson says.
For one mother, the help was badly needed, yet the techniques were so simple that she was astonished.
"He was real bad in school after his daddy left," said the mother of a recent graduate, a second-grader. "He was hitting everybody and he couldn't make friends.
"They showed me how to be patient with him, how to calm him down and use the time-out chair," she said. "I was really amazed. I love it."
Caught by new rule
But the state's move to a fee-for-service payment system for mental health services, instead of grants, presents problems for the after-school programs.
State rates for payment are below current levels, Greenberg says. Also, the programs' therapists often do work with children and their parents that isn't billable.
Greenberg says state officials seem interested in helping resolve the payment problem. One possibility includes increased fees to help make up for the loss of grants.
Pub Date: 4/18/97