In May, I wrote about how 60 Minutes, the venerable CBS newsmagazine program, got suckered by Maryville, an even more venerable orphanage in Illinois – citing it as evidence that Newt Gingrich was on to something when he suggested institutionalizing poor people’s children.
Perhaps that’s understandable. After all, it would be another seven years before the facts about rampant abuse at Maryville would become public.
Less understandable is why anyone would mourn the decision by Maryvlle to finally get out of the orphanage business more than a decade after the horrors were exposed and Maryville was forced to clean up its act. Yet Marie Cohen did just that in June. So it’s worth looking back in more detail at exactly what happened at the institution Cohen chose to lionize.
An institution “up for grabs”
In 2002, the Chicago Sun-Times got hold of government reports calling Maryville’s main campus “dangerous” and in “a state of crisis.” After reviewing hundreds of documents, the newspaper concluded that Maryville was plagued with “rampant violence” and “the place is often up for grabs, with staff struggling to handle suicide attempts, sex abuse, drug use, fights and vandalism.”
In 2001 alone, police were called to Maryville’s main campus more than 900 times. These are some of the reasons why, according to the Sun Times:
- 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,”… 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 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.
And while Cohen, as is her habit, cites a page maintained by the institution itself to prove how great the institution is, the youth who came to a Chicago City Council meeting in 2003 told a different story to Medill News Service:
“It is very unsafe,” said Ramissa Maat, 16, who said she lived at Maryville from age 10 to 13. “There have been numerous incidents where students have been raped by staff members and other students. My friend committed suicide because she couldn’t handle the stress of living there.”
Freddie Cavin, 18, who said he lived at Maryville from 1998 to 2002, said a staff member hit his friend over the head with a garbage can.
Maryville staff quit in droves
As for those wonderful staff Cohen loves to rave about when writing about institutions, people who, because they work at an institution, somehow are magically better than a “loveless foster family”: They were paid next to nothing (despite Maryville’s huge endowment, courtesy of those private donors Cohen mentions), had little training or experience, and 80 of them quit or were fired in the first seven-and-a-half months of 2003 alone.
Eventually, Maryville’s longtime director, Father John Smyth, was ousted (though the statue of himself he commissioned remains at the entrance) and the state pulled all “state wards” out of the place – returning a relatively small number in 2007.
But now, reform-minded leadership at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has decided that there are better ways to spend the huge amount of money it costs to institutionalize a child. So they decided to pay institutions less. Rather than dip further into its own funds, Maryville decided to stop institutionalizing children and, to its credit, turn its attention to better alternatives.
Of course, the apologists for institutionalization would say it’s still fine to warehouse children at places like Maryville because the problems there are in the past. After 900 police calls, rapes, suicides and a riot, everything’s calmed down.
There are three problems with that:
- Maryville’s reforms were largely the result of making institutionalization a much smaller part of what it does, even before the recent announcement. They now put far more emphasis on family preservation.
- Even when institutions are not hellholes, institutions still don’t work.
- The cycle of abuse, reform and abuse again is never-ending. One year, the expose involves Maryville, another year it’s institutions in Georgia, another year California.
And there’s one more cause for concern: The Maryville expose came before the dramatic cuts at newspapers across the country. The next time a famous institution turns into a hellhole, there may be no reporters around to let us know.