Chicago Home for Troubled Children Comes Under Fire by State

DES PLAINES, Ill. — The news was dramatic. After an FBI probe, a 120-year-old Catholic home for troubled youth was threatened with closure. The state planned to remove the children from the home.

But the Illinois governor's office announced Oct. 3 that the children will be able to stay if the home adopts reforms.

Illinois officials began removing residents from the Des Plaines campus of Mary ville Academy, an institution of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in September in an attempt to give Maryville more time to fix problems.

Maryville has been under fire since July 2002, following an investigation into its handling of a suicide, a series of assaults, runaways and sexual activity among the youths at the 270-bed campus, one of 21 facilities in and around Chicago.

FBI agents meanwhile have interviewed staff about the circumstances surrounding the 2002 suicide of a 14-year-old girl at the Des Plaines campus.

“We think [these issues] can be resolved quickly, said Father John Smyth, Maryville's longtime executive director. Father Smyth has pledged to work with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, the archdiocese and the office of Gov. Rod Blagojevich to develop new programs and examine staffing at the facility.

In July, the Department of Children and Family Services gave Maryville 60 days to comply with two independent monitors' suggestions for improvements in care at the facility. In September, department officials began moving the most troubled residents — 39 youths, including 14 “Tier 1” (youths who need the most psychiatric and counseling services) wards of the state — out of Maryville. The remaining 91 are to be removed by Dec. 15.

Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, the legal guardian for most children at Maryville, filed a lawsuit Sept. 30 to stall the Department of Children and Family Services from removing the Maryville residents. He said he and lawyers from his office have interviewed all the youths at Maryville and found the vast majority does not want to leave.

The places the Department of Children and Family Services wants to place them “are no better than Maryville, and some are worse,” Murphy said.

However, he says the institution must make changes to its programs and staff.

“Maryville is not equipped to deal with [violent youth], and the place imploded,” he said.

Father Smyth has “done more for kids in Illinois than a thousand people put together,” Murphy stated, but he suggested it was time for him to “move on.”

“Five to seven years ago, [the Department of Children and Family Services] asked [Father] Smyth to take some really troubled kids,” Murphy said. “He mixed the troubled and non-troubled kids. That's like mixing gasoline and dynamite. I told him not to take them. When [the department] told Maryville to change its programming [to deal with the most troubled kids], Father Smyth dug in his heels and said he wouldn't change.”

Department of Children and Family Services spokeswoman Jill Manuel says the agency also is at fault.

“We do bear some of the responsibility [for problems at Maryville],” she said. “However, they've had almost two years to rectify problems and to bolster their services to make sure that the youth they have, including these Tier 1 youths, are getting adequate services.”

The state recommended that Maryville have better-trained staff in counseling and therapy as well as better programs in place to deal with violence and runaway youth.

Father Smyth disagreed. He said services at Maryville — including services for Tier 1 youth — are more than adequate. He cites the Maryville Scott Nolan Center as a first-rate psychiatric facility for helping the state's most troubled youth.

“It's the best psychiatric hospital for youth,” he said. “That's the reason I got it. I knew the campus here couldn't handle all Tier 1 kids. No one even mentions that or wants to recognize that because no one else would do it.”

Father Smyth maintains that the Department of Children and Family Services may have a hidden agenda in its decision to remove youth from Maryville's Des Plaines campus, just north of Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

“They want to rid themselves of residential care [to save money],” he said. “They attacked us first because we are the biggest, to get us out of the way.”

Established in 1883, several years after the Great Chicago Fire and several epidemics resulted in hundreds of homeless and orphaned children, Maryville has served as an orphan-age, boarding school and trade school for troubled youth. Today, it is a home for abused, neglected and abandoned kids providing diagnostic and medical care, therapeutic counseling, vocational training, special education and emergency shelter services. Last year, Maryville's network of facilities served more than 16,000 children.

Although much has changed since its founding, Father Smyth stressed that Maryville's focus on building a sense of family remains.

“I think it's important to teach the basis of the family because even though we're a surrogate family, it still has components of what a Judeo-Christian family should be — the kids can get a tremendous amount of strength from that,” he explained.

Father Smyth has worked at Maryville since his ordination in 1962. Amid the present controversy, he surrendered control to Maryville's program and clinical manager.

The priest, who holds celebrity status in Illinois, has garnered widespread support in the wake of state and FBI investigations. He said he was buoyed by a Sept. 22 rally at the Des Plaines campus that attracted about 1,500 boisterous supporters, including Maryville alumni, sports figures, political leaders and current Maryville residents.

Father Daniel Mallette, who has known Father Smyth for 50 years, runs one of Maryville's facilities near his parish, St. Margaret of Scotland in Chicago.

“He cares about people 24 hours a day, especially about God's poorest,” said Father Mallette, who visits the Des Plaines campus weekly. “He's got 32 kids right in our parish here. About 10 years ago, our convent was empty and they took it over. Everything he runs is top-notch.”

Father Smyth also is backed by his boss, Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who said in a statement: “I have pledged publicly to work hard to help make changes, redesigning programs and restructuring staff, in order to reopen the Maryville Academy campus. Maryville Academy has experienced significant challenges and is presently facing another one. I believe that Maryville Academy campus will continue to serve the children who need its help.”

Cardinal George “is 100% behind Maryville and myself,” Father Smyth said, “and he wants Maryville to [continue in its] mission of helping children.”

Patrick Novecosky is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.