A Home for Hope

updated 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

When House Speaker Newt Gingrich first broached the notion that orphanages might be a solution to the problem of neglected children in America and tartly suggested to Hillary Clinton that she watch the 1938 movie Boys Town to see what he was talking about, many Americans—the First Lady included—were incredulous. Yet despite the Victorian image of orphanages as forbidding lockups for unwanted kids, and the essential uselessness of a sentimental 56-year-old movie as a guide, group homes for children are not the anachronisms one might imagine. To find out just what these homes can accomplish and what they cannot, senior writer Ron Arias visited the Gillis Center for Children and Families in Kansas City, Mo., a 125-year-old institution whose trained child-care workers oversee some 50 orphaned, abandoned or abused boys. There, Arias spent three days with Kevin, a troubled 6-year-old who was just finishing the first third of a nine-month program. His story reveals some of the difficulties involved when institutions, from the government on down, try to deal effectively with what are essentially deeply personal problems.

IT IS A COLD, BLEAK FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN KANSAS CITY, and inside this second-floor dorm room at the Gillis Center, the atmosphere seems no less gloomy. Emily McLane, 24, one of the center's 42 child-care specialists, is getting Kevin ready for the weekend. "Okay, time to pack up," she tells him cheerfully. "You're going home." Suddenly the first-grader explodes in anger, scowling and clenching his fists. Although these weekend trips home to his grandmother's are routine, they still mean leaving the orderly world of Gillis for the chaos of home, where his mother's drug problems have shattered the family's stability. "Kevin," McLane asks as the boy's anger gradually subsides, "do you need a hug?" Kevin's face softens. "Yes," he says, melting into the young woman's arms.

Like many residential treatment centers, Gillis cares for children—on this day 48 boys from 5 to 16—with severe emotional and behavioral problems. Some are true orphans, parentless children whose age or histories discourage most would-be adoptive parents. But most, like Kevin, are kids whose families have been shattered by drugs, sexual abuse or violence. Gillis and a handful of similar institutions try eventually to reunite these families through therapy for the kids, parenting classes for the adults and group sessions for the family. "Some children need a place away from home to grow up—that's a fact of life," says executive director Barbara O'Toole about the neatly landscaped, six-building facility. "But the strongest tie in life is the biological tie. We need to work with the families of these kids."

For Kevin, the day began peacefully enough. At 7 a.m. at East Cottage, Scott Hymer, 27, another child-care specialist, had wakened him and his 8-year-old roommate, Jimmy. (Except for Kevin's, the boys' names are fictitious.) "Kevin's one of the better kids, but then he's the youngest in the cottage," says Hymer, who has spent the night watching over seven youngsters. Kevin wets his bed, so at midnight Hymer wakes him to go to the bathroom. "He also has nightmares and talks in his sleep," says Hymer. "Most of the kids do. It's like they're all talking to each other."

During this morning's tooth-brushing and washup period, only Alex poses a problem. A 12-year-old manic-depressive who is prone to outbursts of anger and aggression, he has trouble waking because of his medication, so Hymer spends extra time talking to him.

At breakfast downstairs, Kevin wolfs down a sugared roll while other kids chatter over milk and cereal. After they've eaten, one of the four supervising adults doles out colored tablets—many of them antianxiety pills—in tiny plastic cups to several boys, though not to Kevin. "We have runners, or kids who repeatedly run away, fire-setters and self-destructive children," says associate director Dave Janssens, explaining the need for high staff-to-child ratios. (For the majority of residents, it is one to seven.) Gillis also has kids who are so troubled they slash their arms, wrists or legs and others who repeatedly stick objects in their ears, noses and elsewhere.

Kevin has none of these problems; he is usually charmingly playful, and the boys in his group have affectionately tagged the chubby youngster Bubba or Tank. Before coming to Gillis, his main problem was flying into uncontrollable rages and pummeling his 4-year-old half sister Keeana or fighting at school with teachers and classmates.

At an after-breakfast group session in the TV room, cottage supervisor Brad Crabb, 44, says, "Kevin, what's one positive thing that made you feel good about yourself this week?" Kevin, seated at one end of a long dining table, mumbles, "I didn't get grounded, and I didn't get in trouble." In Kevin's case, trouble usually means being what Cindy Sinclair, his first-grade teacher at the small, on-cam-pus school, calls "very oppositional." For example, "I say up, he says down. I say this is a 5, he says it's a 4." Though he is usually an eager student, Kevin's contentiousness slows his learning. Now nearly 7, he hasn't yet begun to read and still has trouble pronouncing words.

Kevin's behavior problems began spiraling out of control a year ago, says his grandmother Barbara Turner, 47. It was then, she says, that his mother, Tyfonie Rainey, 23, was struggling with crack addiction and "wasn't interested in being a mother." Though Rainey never completely abandoned her children, she disappeared for days at a time, leaving Turner to care for Kevin and Keeana, both of whom are products of Rainey's casual romances. Adding to the family's woes, last spring Rainey learned she had contracted HIV apparently through sexual contact. "A lot was coming down on us," Turner says, "and Kevin had trouble handling her not being there. She's more like a sister to him, and they'd fight like that. Then he'd take it out on little Keeana. Punch her, knock her down, ram her into the wall. I'd spank him, but the whippin' would make him worse."

While Turner struggled to care for her grandchildren, living on $700 a month from child welfare and her own disability checks, Kevin began fighting at school and wetting his pants. "When the social worker brought him home one day, that kind of broke the camel's back," says Turner, a former factory worker who still suffers back pain from an old job injury. "I told her Kevin needed some help, and I did too. I wanted to raise him right, because what I was doing wasn't working. All that raging and anger—I didn't want to see my baby end up in a gang or prison."

Then in September, Kevin was accepted by Gillis into a nine-month program called Families Are Coping Together (FACT). Supported mostly by state funds, plus some private donations, the home will spend about $27,300 on the boy. "Foster care may be cheaper, but we treat the whole family, which is more cost-effective in the long run," says associate director Janssens, 45. "Most of the kids who finished Kevin's program are still at home with their families."

By midday, Kevin has practiced telling time, listened to his teacher read and counted a hundred pennies under the gaze of an 85-year-old volunteer everyone calls Mr. L. "They say he has trouble counting," says Herman Lowenstein, a retired businessman who has helped kids for 24 years. "But all Kevin needs is confidence. So many of these boys have been told they're dumb or they're losers. They've been beaten or abused sexually. But they're basically good. They just need love."

They often need discipline too. Gillis staffers usually resolve behavior problems with calming words, though sometimes they must use "safeholds" to physically restrain children. A common disciplinary measure is a "time-out"—a cooling-off period in which kids spend time by themselves in a quiet spot.

After lunch, Kevin shoots baskets in the gym, then spends the rest of his free period playing Nintendo in the rec room. Like Kevin, most of the children find in Gillis a welcome sanctuary from turbulent home situations. Deon, a 10-year-old, mentions that he was 6 when his mother's boyfriend beat him with a frying pan and threw weights at him. The beating left him comatose for eight days and permanently brain-injured.

By the time Kevin is ready to leave for his weekend at home, he seems restless and excited. He has nearly finished his first three months at Gillis and will soon start the second phase of his program—living at home, where Gillis workers will check in regularly for family counseling and his grandmother will have parenting sessions. "We're optimistic about Kevin and his family," insists social worker Belinda Jacobs, 23. "They want to make changes."

Settling into the front seat of Jacobs' car, Kevin seems pleased that he finished the week with only a few time-outs and hopes he'll have enough self-control to avoid hitting his sister. At his grandmother's two-floor apartment in a low-income housing complex, he opens the door, one shoelace dragging behind him. Grandma Turner rushes over and hugs him as Keeana watches from a distance. "Don't worn, Kevin's not gonna hit you," Turner reassures her.

Later in the evening, Kevin's mother drops by with husband Lloyd Rainey, 31, and their 15-month-old daughter, Kenjdra. Rainey says all her children, including Kenjdra, are free of HIV. As for herself, "I'm not dealing with things too well," she admits. "But I'm trying to get it together. I quit crack cold turkey two months ago, so that's something, right?"

Twice during the evening, Rainey bolts from the living room, shouting over a blaring TV about being "left out" of Kevin's life, then ranting about losing her parental rights to the state. Turner shakes her head. "Sometimes she acts like a 4-year-old, and it's scary and confusing for Kevin. Who's the adult here?"

In the kitchen, as Rainey starts to weep, Kevin comes over and quietly surrounds her in an embrace. "Hey, don't cry," he says softly. "I'm here for you 'cause you my mama."

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