Part one of a two-part series
By Marni Pyke
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Retribution came swiftly for a teenager involved in a sexual encounter with another boy at Lutherbrook, a residential treatment center for traumatized children in Addison.
Four housemates laid siege to his room and gave chase after he jumped out of a window. They cornered and hit the boy until neighbors intervened last August, according to police reports.
The sexual encounter between unsupervised minors and the vigilantism that followed are two of several occurrences at Lutherbrook that worry Cook County Public Guardian Robert Harris, who has clients at the site.
"It's an extremely troubling thing," he said. "I have concerns about staff in terms of training and oversight."
In 2011 and 2012, Addison police received more than 570 calls for service from Lutherbrook to investigate batteries, assaults, fights and disorderly conduct, among the more serious issues.
Lutherbrook administrators counter that this is not representative of the center's work.
"We strive in all respects to maintain a really safe environment for kids here," Lutherbrook Executive Director Brent Diers said.
Lutherbrook, which is operated by Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois, cares for about 50 children ages 6 to 18 who have suffered a variety of traumas and are coping with emotional and behavioral challenges. Their histories could include physical or sexual abuse, or witnessing domestic or other violence. Plus, there is trauma related to separation from their immediate families.
A call for change
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services currently has 47 children placed at Lutherbrook.
DCFS issued a corrective action plan last fall to Lutherbrook that cited excessive runaways as an issue along with failing to inform the state of "critical incidents" quickly. It required managers to document that night staff were making regular rounds and staying awake and also called for changes to ensure the appropriate ratios of adults to children.
DCFS also has investigated several licensing complaints at Lutherbrook in 2012 and 2013, ranging from allegations of inappropriate restraint of kids to reports of unsupervised children.
Currently, Lutherbrook is not under any corrective action mandates from DCFS, Diers said. "By and large we have a good relationship with them (DCFS) and work well on complicated cases," he said.
DCFS spokesman Dave Clarkin called corrective action plans "neither an everyday occurrence nor an alarming event, but merely a first step in the department's standard monitoring of all of our nonprofit partners providing services to youth under our care."
Lutherbrook houses a challenging segment of those youth.
"Kids who come here are traumatized kids who have been placed in residential environments because they haven't been safe in other environments because of their difficulty regulating themselves," Diers said.
He added that children at Lutherbrook receive individual, group and family therapy, along with recreational opportunities for healing.
The Lutherbrook campus includes a school, playing fields and eight cottages where kids are placed according to age.
The institution dates back to 1873, when 14 local congregations established an orphanage. Lutherbrook Children's Center was opened in the 1960s.
Lutherbrook is deeply rooted in Addison and receives a lot of community support with various fundraisers. Addison police collaborate with the center, visiting and playing sports with children.
But police also serve another role. In 2011 and 2012, there were 578 calls to Addison police for service by Lutherbrook, including 48 follow-ups, records obtained by the Daily Herald stated.
Among the cases investigated in 2011 and 2012 were 13 batteries, three domestic batteries, an attempted suicide, three aggravated assaults, three assaults, one unlawful use of a weapon, 18 disorderly conducts, two fights/riots and 170 runaways.
Here are some of the more problematic cases:
• On Aug. 3, 2012, a sexual encounter involving two teenage boys occurred in an on-site cottage. One boy was charged with criminal sexual abuse and disorderly conduct for filing a false police report. A staff member found the teens acting suspiciously in a weight room but the case was not reported until Aug. 4.
• Around 11 p.m. Aug. 8, 2012, three underage boys and an 18-year-old retaliated against one of the teens involved in the sexual encounter by pounding on the door of his room, where he was barricaded. The juvenile jumped out of the window and fled to a nearby parking lot. His pursuers caught up and kicked and beat him until neighbors came to his rescue. The 18-year-old was charged with misdemeanor battery.
• On Aug. 23, 2012, an 18-year-old threatened staff members with a wooden stick he'd broken from a mop. One employee was described by police as "very alarmed as she was out of breath and appeared to be shaking." The teenager was charged with aggravated assault.
• On the morning of Aug. 27, 2012, an 18-year-old brought a knife in his shoe to Lutherbrook Academy, the on-site day school. Other classrooms were locked down. The teen was charged with unlawful use of a weapon. He obtained the 3-inch knife to use for protection while on a supervised shopping trip, he told police.
• On the night of Oct. 27, 2012, three teenage boys took the keys to a Lutherbrook van from the front desk and stole it. The joy ride lasted for two hours until they returned the vehicle. All three were charged with felony possession of a stolen vehicle.
"We recognize there is a need for developed and strong partnerships with local law enforcement to meet the needs of kids and ensure the safety of other kids in the facility," DCFS' Clarkin said. "It sounds like there may have been some problems with Lutherbrook and the Addison police more than a year ago but it also sounds like they worked that out and have got a plan to do better moving forward."
Diers said he could not address specific cases. He noted that most of the visits from police involved minors leaving without permission, which are classified as runaway situations.
"Most of these were in relation to kids that go AWOL from the group home: older adolescents who say, 'I'm going across the street to the gas station,' and we are required to let the police know when the youth under our supervision are not under our supervision. There are very few times when kids are gone overnight."
Experts say that traumatized children can act out in unusually aggressive ways when they think they're threatened. The key is to anticipate the warning signs and de-escalate the situation before a child resorts to violence.
Although most DCFS' wards are in foster families, "youth with extraordinary needs that foster care cannot meet are placed in residential care," Clarkin explained.
Clients of the Cook County public guardian's office in residential care "are there for a particular reason," said Harris, adding it's incumbent on treatment facilities "not to be part of the problem by not recognizing the signs or exacerbating issues as happened with the vigilantism."
The boy attacked by his housemates is a client of the public guardian's office and was removed from Lutherbrook, Harris said.
DCFS has carried out seven licensing complaint investigations at Lutherbrook in 2012 and 2013, all of which were substantiated. DCFS documents also show the violations were corrected.
They ranged from allegations of an employee dragging a child and keeping his knee on the child's back, causing bruising and scratches, to a case of six children leaving cottages at night without staff members' knowledge.
Lutherbrook is committed to providing high-quality care to children, Lutheran Child and Family Services communications director Sara LoCoco said. When staff acts contrary to those principles, "they are disciplined and in some cases terminated." The worker in the Aug. 3, 2012, case was fired, she said.
Regarding the missing children, Lutherbrook reported those problems to DCFS and changed its procedures to prevent a recurrence, LoCoco said.
The facility has a ratio of one direct careworker for every three or four children, plus numerous therapists and recreational specialists. Cottages are locked from the outside at night, but the campus is open.
It's easy to pick out a few cases and create a perception there are problems at Lutherbrook, officials said. But the reality is there are numerous success stories of children healing during a stay there, Diers said.
"So many of our kids go back to living in families and living successfully in families," Diers said. "I feel really good about the work we're doing with kids and families. We're part of creating real, positive change in the lives of kids and families."