Girls' diagnostic center completed

Children's Home to provide emergency shelter for youth

October 13, 2007|By Tyeesha Dixon | Tyeesha Dixon,Sun reporter

James Johnson III didn't think twice about donating money to help The Children's Home build a new center. He knows better than most how much the Catonsville group home can help change lives. Johnson, 29, now a restaurant manager, spent three years at the center in his youth.

He'll never forget how the home's staff supported his fight with cancer. Or how the staff inspired him to leave his abusive and neglectful childhood in the past, despite the pain produced by years of shelter-hopping and foster homes.

That's why Johnson joined the nonprofit organization's board members, the Maryland attorney general and other state officials to celebrate the completion of a new $4.5 million diagnostic center for girls at a ribbon-cutting ceremony yesterday.

Johnson said he felt as though he owed it to the only family he's ever known.

"I think it's good to have the diagnostic center for females to grow and get the nurturing they need," he said.

The diagnostic center, an emergency shelter that will house 16 girls at a time, ages 8 to 17, sits on the home's 44-acre estate.

The center's medical suite will allow residents to receive medical, psychological and psychiatric services under one roof. It will also provide educational support and family therapy for the girls, who may stay in the center for up to 120 days.

Only three such centers exist in the state, according to the state Department of Human Resources.

The Children's Home differs from other youth facilities in that it can offer extended stays, explained Mark Mittleman, the home's deputy director. He said children who go to hospitals for treatment are often discharged within days.

"You can really figure out their needs when you have the time to," Mittleman said. "A lot of them have experienced tremendous trauma in their lives, and this gives them a place to deal with some of those issues."

Andre G. Cooper, chief executive officer of The Children's Home, said he took on the diagnostic center project because of his mentor, Grace Edmundson Turner.

She told him about her vision to create a place for young girls who have been abused and neglected to get the assessment and services they need in a place that feels like home.

"I think we really want to respond to the needs of children in Maryland," Cooper said. "We kind of think this is the natural way to get kids back in the community."

Although Turner, who worked in the family and children services field for more than 40 years, did not live to see her vision fulfilled, the center was built in her memory, Cooper said.

"It truly is an inspiration," said Anita Wilkens, Turner's daughter, who also attended the ceremony. Wilkens has followed in her mother's footsteps and now works as a state social worker. "She would be so proud to see it happen," she said.

The diagnostic center was the largest construction project for the home in 30 years. Its other facilities include six residential cottages that can house up to 64 children: a group home, emergency shelter for girls and a foster care program. With the new center, the home will be able to house 80 children.

The Children's Home was established in 1863 in downtown Baltimore as a home for German children orphaned by the Civil War. It moved to Catonsville in the 1920s.

Residents won't be able to move into the center until a contract is reached with the state, Cooper said. He said he is unsure how long that will take.

"We have a lot of folks who are supporting the building that can hopefully help expedite that," Cooper said.

In the meantime, The Children's Home will continue to help the children who currently find refuge there, like Daiza, who is 16 and now living in one of the home's cottages.

"Allow yourself to accept things that happened in the past," Daiza read from a poem she wrote. "Today is today."

Johnson said that's one of the most important lessons he learned during his time in the home. "People looked down on me," he said.

"But you've got to keep pushing, you've got to keep moving."

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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