By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
Most of the kids in out-of-state placements were orphans who somewhere along the way skipped being children and became residents or case numbers or wards of the state instead. Most had been the victims of extreme sexual or physical abuse by their parents or guardians at very young ages. Then they were moved around like checkers from one facility to the next, many enduring continued abuse from other residents and staff members every step of the way. By the time they reached puberty, their normal cognitive processes were lost somewhere in outer space.
Many of the kids had learned to create their own realities, because the ones they lived in didn't offer much breathing room. They made up pictures in their heads, which eventually turned into full-blown hallucinations. The lack of any long-term parental or societal guides meant they never learned right from wrong, so by the time they reached an age where they should have been experiencing first dates, they were downing anti-psychotic medications and fending off sexual predators instead.
From there it got worse. It was a variety show of trouble, and because the kids jumped around so much, no one ever got a firm handle on their diagnoses. Eventually, after attacking a staff member or another resident in an unrefined rage, some ended up in juvenile-detention facilities, where fending off violence and encroaching mental deterioration were the posted activities of each day. After that it was more medications and more abuse and more placements, one right after the other, until the teens got to the point -- in Illinois, anyway -- of no return.
So after the December meeting with DCFS, Marcus immediately approached St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis about leasing space for the center. His idea met with a round of applause. "When they brought the idea to us," says Richard Mark, CEO of the hospital, "we realized it was a service that was needed. It has always been our goal not to ship patients outside of their community, and this project met that goal."
Carl and Marcus had jumped into the project with few doubts that it would succeed. They brainstormed daily. Ideas flowed like water. They solicited professional advice from friends and colleagues, and they soon had a medical director, a board president, a senior child-care worker, a caseworker and a director of human resources.
One of the people Marcus invited on board as an employee was Dan, a 20-year-old former client who was studying for his bachelor's degree in psychology at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE). Dan, who asks that his last name not be used, was drawn to the idea of becoming a child-care worker at the facility. Having spent time in psychiatric hospitals and behavioral residential facilities himself, he understood how effective proper treatment could be.
"My parents got divorced when I was 8 years old, and I guess I didn't handle it very well," Dan says. "I took my anger out in very aggressive ways."
At the time, Dan lived in Belleville. After the divorce, he moved with his mother to Chicago, where Dan's aggressive behavior escalated to the point that he couldn't stay in school or at home. His mother sent him to a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed for three months, and then he moved to a residential facility, where he spent the next year.
Dan says he left the facility with a better grasp of how to handle his rage, but for the next six years he lived with his father in Belleville in a constant state of anxiety instead. He became extremely introverted and developed a paralyzing fear of social situations. He never developed friendships, never went to school functions and never, ever talked to girls. That's when he started seeing Marcus.
"He became sort of a role model for me, a kind of big brother in my life," Dan says. "He was, like, the nicest man I ever met. He had so much patience. I never once saw him get angry."
Eventually Dan worked his way through the anxieties and residual rage, and Dan stopped seeing Marcus on a regular basis, though they called each other occasionally just to keep up. After graduating from high school, Dan worked odd jobs for a few years and then decided to mold his life after his mentor's. He enrolled at SIUE so that he could become a child psychologist himself.
"I wanted to help people in the same way I had been helped," Dan says. "I wanted to help prevent other kids from having to go through what I went through."
When Marcus called him in 1998, told him about his plan to open up an acute-care psychiatric center and asked whether he'd be interested in a part-time position as a child-care worker, Dan jumped at the offer. It was a dream come true.
But the project's expected opening date of April came and went without the southern region's final approval. It had now been almost a year since Carl and Marcus left their full-time jobs, and they began, for the first time, to question whether the center was going to happen at all.