Lost and Found

Emotionally disturbed teenagers in Illinois used to be shipped off to locked institutions in other states. Stuart Marcus and Tim Carl brought some of them home.

A teenage boy follows Stuart Marcus from one end of the hallway to the other. He bounces around the doctor like a large puppy and eventually maneuvers in front of him, walks backward and gets the face-to-face that he wants.

"When can we talk?" the boy asks, allowing Marcus no more than two strides' worth of space. "I need to talk to you about something. When can we talk? Can we talk now? When can we talk?"

There's an edge of urgency to the boy's voice, only slightly dulled by the medication he takes that keeps things like hallucinations at bay. Marcus smiles and walks calmly past posters of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Einstein taped to the walls. These are the people he wants the 12 boys who live here to think about, even though he allows them pictures of rock stars in the privacy of their own rooms.

Stuart Marcus, co-founder of the Juvenile Transitional Center: "People were starting to look at me like I was crazy."
Mark Gilliland
Stuart Marcus, co-founder of the Juvenile Transitional Center: "People were starting to look at me like I was crazy."

"We'll talk when I'm through here," Marcus tells the boy, who has strategically shortened the distance between the tips of their shoes.

"I need to talk to you now. Can we talk now? When can we talk?"

"Soon."

Other boys pour out of their rooms when they hear Marcus' voice, and he's soon buffeted by urgent requests. Here at the Juvenile Transitional Center in East St. Louis, an acute-care psychiatric facility for teenage boys, Marcus is the alpha adult, an important man in these hallways.

He -- like his business partner, Tim Carl -- has imagined this scene a million times during the past two years. But since the facility opened last summer, they've had little time to revel in the reality. There's not much time to do what they need to do.

Marcus and Carl's agreement with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) stipulates that the facility will take the state's most emotionally disturbed teenage boys and in six short months try to make them psychologically fit to "transition down" to a less restrictive environment or, once they turn 18, to walk out the doors on their own. The center gets $1 million a year from the state to try, but all the money on earth can't change what some of the boys have been through.

Most are orphans, born in Illinois but shipped off to locked juvenile facilities in other states when their problems got the better of them. Though years of neglect, abuse and abandonment have played a part in shaping the boys' clamorous need to talk to Marcus, the loneliness of institutionalization drives much of their current momentum.

Marcus, therefore, must choreograph an exit from the main hallway that won't squash the fragile psychological gains he's made with the boys over the past several months. He doesn't want the boys to feel he is pushing them away. They've seen enough of that already. On the other hand, he must instill respect for authority. The boys need to understand that when he says no he means no, but they also need to trust that he'll come back and talk with them.

The cluster around him seems tense. Questions come at Marcus from all sides, but he remains smiling, stays focused, keeps walking.

It's been hard sometimes, thinking about what he gave up to get here -- his career, his reputation, his credibility with family and friends -- but harder still to think about how close this came to not happening. If it hadn't been for Carl, Marcus wouldn't be here right now. Neither would the boys. To make this real, Carl lost almost everything.

But that's all behind them now, even though the memories still cling like sweat from a bad dream. Right now, he has to think about the future instead, about how he's going to get these kids back home, wherever that might be.

"I'll be back," Marcus promises the boys over and over again. "I'll be back."

But as he slides out the door of the facility's main hallway, pleading silhouettes haunt the door's glazed window, which separates them from the rest of the world.

In 1997, Tim Carl was working as the director of outpatient services at a St. Charles facility for troubled youth. It was a good time in Carl's life -- he was young, financially successful and relatively content with his life. But he was also ambitious, so when he noticed that the St. Charles facility housed dozens of kids from across the river in Illinois, he decided to find out why.

Carl learned that Illinois law banned locked juvenile residential facilities, which meant that teenagers who were too violent or too emotionally disturbed for foster care or group homes were sent to locked psychiatric centers instead. But secured psychiatric units for teenagers in Illinois were operating at full capacity, so hundreds of teens were being sent off to locked juvenile facilities in other states.

In 1997, almost 800 Illinois kids were living in institutions as far away as Texas.

Then Carl discovered that one year earlier, in 1996, the Child Care Association of Illinois, in conjunction with DCFS, had decided to try to reduce the total number of children in Illinois residential care and bring the children placed out of state back to Illinois.

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