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.

Everyone, that is, except Marcus' former client Dan. Though he questioned whether the state would ever allow the center to open, he never doubted Marcus' vision. "I just kept waiting," Dan says.

Marcus, prodded by the thought of starvation and Carl's insistent persuasion, decided to go where his common sense told him never, ever to go -- the political arena. He called state Sen. James Clayborne (D-Belleville) and state Rep. Thomas Holbrook (D-Belleville) and told them about the project: It would help take heat off DCFS for having so many out-of-state placements; it would help the kids transition back to their communities; it would save the state money and create jobs in East St Louis.

The state lawmakers were supportive and called DCFS on behalf of Marcus and Carl. By late November 1998, the agency called back to announce that a contract would be signed in January. "We were elated," Carl says. "We were flying high. We felt like we had finally done it."

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."

But the men's elation ended abruptly when January came and went without a signed contract. Two months later, in March 1999, they received notice from DCFS informing them that even though the state wanted to contract with the center, it couldn't until a center actually existed.

What that meant, Marcus and Carl soon learned, was that they would have to hire, train and do background checks on a staff and appoint a board of directors. The facility itself would also have to have every sheet, every towel, every fire extinguisher in place and would have to pass inspection.

From the state's point of view, the delays were necessary. "All of those things take time," Slomka, of DCFS, says. "New programs are first developed; then they're implemented. They don't just fall from the sky."

From Marcus and Carl's point of view, the sky had already taken its nosedive. "We started laughing about it at this point," Carl says. "It was truly a matter of 'Build it and they will come.'"

Says Marcus' colleague O'Reilly: "It was like they were running a marathon, only the finish line kept being moved farther away. It seemed cruel how the state was dangling these things in front them -- you know, 'Just do this and everything will be OK' -- and then something would happen, and it wasn't OK, and then they had to do something else."

Then early one morning, Marcus' phone rang. It was Rep. Holbrook's office, and the director of DCFS was on an intercom call. They were calling, they said, to tell Marcus the contract would finally be signed.

"He apologized to me up and down about how long it took," Marcus says, adding that he was so surprised by the call, he couldn't think of anything to say. "All I could say after two years of hell was 'Oh, no problem.'"

He called Carl immediately: "You're not going to believe who just called me...."

Carl and Marcus take the boys to a local department store to shop for clothes. In just a short time, the state will want to know whether the kids are ready to transition down to foster care or a group home or, if they're 18, to live on their own. In addition to teaching the boys how to cope with reality, control ingrained anger and learn to trust other people, Carl and Marcus have to teach them how to shop.

One of the kids eyes a pair of shoes he wants as the two men look on. Then the boy sees a second pair of shoes, but Carl realizes the boy is afraid, can't even imagine how, to ask for both.

Carl goes over and picks up the two pairs of shoes.

"Do you really want them?"

The boy just looks at Carl.

"Let's get them."

Carl knows this is probably the only time in the boy's life that he's ever gone into a store and walked out with two pairs of shoes.

Afterward, Carl says, "I went home that night and said to myself that if this thing were to fold tomorrow, it was almost all worth it just to buy that kid two pairs of shoes. It really was."

Since the opening of the facility in July, Carl finds himself dealing with more than just the top and bottom lines of the center's $1 million annual contract with DCFS. He's also learning how to acclimate the boys to the communities they will someday return to and to squeeze as much intensive treatment into six months as he can. So he takes the kids shopping. He takes them to ball games and to the movies and to the circus. They attend classes during the day at space rented from the hospital, and they take part in art therapy, music therapy, learning how to fill out a job application and read a bus pass. They spend their days learning what it will take to survive out there.

"It's similar to what happened to the behavioral-medicine field 10 or 12 years ago with inpatient and outpatient stays," Carl says. "We're trying to cut down on the length of the stay, thereby cutting down on costs. A six-month stay here, wrapped by the community agencies, is going to be a lot more effective than putting them down in Texas and letting them sit there for three years and then trying to bring them back."

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