Not Quite Home

At St. Vincent's Center in Timonium, today's orphans -- children forsaken by abuse and neglect -- find a safe haven between homes

Cover Story

September 19, 1999|By Story by Rob Hiaasen | Story by Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff

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.

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