Not just a placement, Maryville's Casa Salama strives to be a home
For most suburban folks, home is not merely the place where you eat, sleep and store your stuff. It is where you are loved, where you are safe, where you belong. But home can be an elusive concept for a kid bouncing around in the bureaucracy of child welfare agencies.
"We had one girl who had 42 placements before she came to us," says Rocco A. Cimmarusti, program director of Casa Salama, Maryville Academy's home in Bartlett for girls with intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses. For her first 16 years, that girl went in and out of institutions, foster homes, hospitals and temporary facilities that couldn't handle her, could never fit her needs. That's not an easy path for anyone, let alone a girl with mental issues.
But Cimmarusti says that girl feels comfortable at Casa Salama, which is home to 25 to 30 girls in three cozy residences.
Casa Salama is emblematic of the industrywide shift away from large institutions and into the smaller, more targeted placements the state wants. In 1997, more than 52,000 kids were wards of the state. Now, only 15,300 children are under the direction of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and many of those are in smaller, homier settings, says Kendall Marlowe, deputy director of communications for DCFS.
"That's a good thing," Marlowe says. "We got a whole lot better at getting kids out of the system."
That new philosophy mirrors the successful changes at Maryville, which at the start of this decade was beset with a host of problems and had lost its accreditation as well as some business from the state. One of the oldest and largest childcare agencies in Illinois, the Des Plaines-based Maryville offers everything from group homes and vocational classes to a psychiatric hospital. Maryville has regained its accreditation and its reputation under the direction of Catherine M. Ryan, who is a lawyer with a law degree from Northwestern and an MBA from DePaul, a former prosecutor and a nun with the School Sisters of St. Francis.
"Catherine Ryan understands the need for intensive, therapeutic services to meet the challenges of youth with developmental disabilities," Marlowe says. The goal isn't to warehouse these kids but to give them the opportunity to live better lives as adults.
The state pays Maryville $328 a day for every child at Casa Salama, but that still doesn't cover the $370 daily cost of caring for a child with so many "significant needs," notes Ryan, who lives at the Maryville campus in Des Plaines and earns a stipend for her religious order. "It's all money that is an investment in these precious children."
Private funds and donations make up the difference and also provide special treats, such as last year's trip when 14 girls vacationed at Disney World in Florida.
Those memories of their new lives at Casa Salama are a far cry from the lives they lived before the state stepped in.
"Our children have seen a lot," acknowledges Evelyn Smith, a Maryville division administrator, adding that many of the children who end up at Casa Salama have been victims of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
When these girls are told their new home includes a private bedroom in a chalet dappled with sunlight streaking through a pastoral grove of oak and hickory trees, they don't know what to expect and they still can't relax.
Trauma they endured in their young lives causes them to develop "hypervigilance," Cimmarusti says. Even if they are just standing in place, their hearts will beat fast, they'll take shallow, quick breaths and their eyes will dart around.
"They'll be very aware of stimulus and constantly monitor for danger," Cimmarusti says.
A deer serenely walking through a picturesque meadow near Casa Salama might inspire panic in the girls.
"These children want protection. They need it, and they know it," says Ryan, who used to be chief of the Juvenile Justice Bureau for the Cook County state's attorney before she became executive director of Maryville Academy.
Casa Salama is a name that means house of peace and safety.
"When they first get here, they can't tell you what their emotion is. They show you," Cimmarusti says. "A chair comes flying by your head, you know something is wrong."
That's where the round-the-clock staff (one staffer for every three kids during the day, and one for every five residents at night) makes the difference.
"You'd want to be adopted by our managers. They are great moms," Cimmarusti says.
When the girls, who all attend Elgin Area School District U-46 schools, get off the bus on a recent afternoon, 12-year veteran manager Elizabeth Pitts and her staff are there to welcome the kids back to their home in Building B.
"You can see how much energy she has," Pitts says as an excited girl wraps her in a bear hug that most would consider a bit too hard and a bit too long.
Tonight is a special night because four girls earned enough points through their good behavior to go to Red Lobster to celebrate the birthday of a girl turning 16. Later there will be cake and ice cream for everyone.
While Pitts, who lives in Schaumburg, is quick with a smile, kind word or hug, she also runs a very structured and disciplined house. The girls have daily chores and help with the family dinners. Their private rooms all boast neatly made beds and are cleaner than a typical college dorm room.
"These are treatment homes, no doubt about it," says Ryan, who points to the extensive services these girls receive. "But at the same time these are children. We want this to be a safe and welcoming home for our children, with the necessary clinical treatment our children need."