The large kid in the hallway is demanding an iron. He’s six feet six inches tall, with the girth of a power forward, and occupies the width of the corridor, blocking the main artery of the house. His voice rises, reverberating through the adjacent living room and out the window for all the world to hear.
“Yo, I need the iron, son!”
It seems Edward Fabian has arrived just in time.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s the problem here, Cecil?” Fabian asks moments after walking through the door of the Georgia McMurray Group Home.
Upon seeing Fabian, Cecil’s demeanor immediately shifts; his brow softens and back straightens and his frustration has been replaced with innocent playfulness. Cecil, who is 21, towers over Fabian, by at least nine inches, and Fabian must crane his neck to address him.
“And why you wearing all red?” he queries, noting Cecil’s decision to sport red sweat pants with a red V-neck T-shirt and a Cincinnati Reds cap.
The large kid shrugs.
“Introduce yourself,” Fabian says to Cecil.
And the now-gentle giant politely swallows an outstretched hand in his own.
Fabian is the program director for the Adolescent Residence Care and Preparing Youth for Adulthood programs at Episcopal Social Services. The McMurray Home in the Bronx is one of two group homes he overseas. It is also one of the few group homes that will survive city budget cuts.
By April, two-thirds of New York City’s group homes will be closed. The decision is part of the Administration for Children Services’ plan to funnel group home kids into foster homes and foster home kids back to their families. City and state budget deficits have resulted in sweeping cuts to social service programs and group care is often perceived as an expensive last resort for children who are unable to be placed with foster parents. But in a system with more kids than available foster parents, some social workers worry that many teens will get pushed out of child care into a bureaucratic purgatory, and then often into the streets.
“If you’re going to close down the congregate care, you gotta keep something open for the older kids,” says Fabian. “These are kids with no home to return to.”
The Georgia McMurray Group Home is a two-story brick building that sits nonchalantly alongside other two-story brick buildings on East 234 Street just off the Bronx River Parkway. On a passing glance, the inside of the house seems pretty normal: in the living room, a flat screen TV surrounded by couches zipped in plastic to keep the bed bugs out; a kitchen with a simple round white clock hanging over the doorway; analog TVs, a washer and dryer, and a red felt pool table– the centerpiece of the house, says Fabian– in the basement.
But then the little things creep into view, like the fire extinguisher hanging in the dining room next to a manual depicting the Heimlich Maneuver, or the padlocks on the closet doors in the upstairs hallways.
And finally the bedrooms betray purpose of this place: no posters, no marks on the wall chronicling years of physical growth, no endearingly messy piles of laundry on the floor. Just pastel colored sheets tightly hugging twin-size beds and a few digital alarm clocks. This is not a home, but rather a place one stays for a few days or weeks or months.
In the dining room, McMurray’s staff gathers for their daily meeting. Though 11 kids live here, 15 adults work here in overlapping shifts. The staff discusses each child individually– their mental health progress, performance in school, various behavioral problems. One kid has been missing curfew, another walked out without notice in the morning. Despite their efforts at diplomacy and discipline, there is only so much the staff can do to control the kids. This is, after all, a house not a prison. Upon hearing that one of the kids was late to class twice last week– and thus actually attended class– one of the workers quips, “That’s a plus, considering.”
Every few minutes a pounding staccato voice down the hall reaches the dining room. Cecil is on the phone talking loudly. Eventually, the focus of the meeting turns to him.
“They took him off his medication,” says one worker to Fabian, as he observes the meeting from the living room doorway. “He has to go back on.”
Cecil is not supposed to be home right now. He is enrolled in a daily skills program intended to help him transition into the real world. And yet there he is, a wall away, telling some unseen friend about his wrinkled jeans.
“It’s been like this all day,” the worker remarks, before half-jokingly adding, “I’m almost an alcoholic.”
Yet Cecil is kind of a success story.
Three years ago Cecil was on Riker’s Island, for assaulting a child care worker. When he was released, no child service organization wanted to take him in. But he had to go somewhere, so the city forced him upon Fabian and Episcopal.
“He is the city’s number one problem,” says Fabian with a smile. Cecil is somewhat of a celebrity within the child care circle. His name induces nervous stutters and knowing smirks among social workers throughout the city.
But three years under Fabian’s watch and Cecil has partially reformed. He no longer requires a two-to-one staff ratio as he did in the past. And he understands the consequences of further misbehavior– a return to the cell. Of course, much work is left, as indicated by the fact that McMurray does not allow Cecil a roommate. Incidentally, Fabian says that a primary reason Episcopal’s McMurray Home was not chosen for closure is that it has gained a reputation for being able to handle the most difficult kids, in large part due to their work with Cecil.
To Fabian, though, success can really only be measured after a kid’s transition out of group care.
“The world is so unforgiving, and as soon as your time here is up, you’ll see how unkind it is,” he tells the kids. “Nobody will give you a pot to p*ss in or a window to throw it out of.”
Child services’ decision to slash the number of group homes in the city makes sense, concedes Fabian. An efficient way for Child Services to deal with city budget cuts is to decrease the number of children they house. And the best way to do this is to reunite as many kids with their families as possible. This, in theory, opens up more slots in foster care for group home kids to slide into, thus decreasing the number of kids in group homes and justifying the elimination of 182 group care slots, roughly two-thirds of this year’s total slots.
Accordingly, in its budgetary briefing for the next fiscal year, Child Services states that they are “anticipating an increase in adoptions and expedited family reunification that may potentially lead to a decrease in the foster care census by 2012.”
Fabian doesn’t buy it.
“The reality of it is that not all kids are built for foster homes,” he says.
He cites that most foster parents– 90 percent in his opinion– are not interested in taking in teenagers, a statement corroborated by two other Episcopal program directors. Furthermore many kids– kids like Cecil– have behavioral or psychological problems that require enhanced supervision and consistent medical treatment. Without a sufficient number of group homes, these kids get lost in paperwork.
From all the group homes slated to close by April, Child Services expects a discharge plan detailing where the organization will send their kids. The children who can not be placed– either back with their family, in a foster home or in one of the few remaining group homes– will be sent back to Child Services, where they will stay indefinitely in one of the city’s intake facilities– overcrowded, under-supervised facilities with scores and scores of other system rejects– until a spot opens up somewhere. From experience, Fabian has found that the kids who end up at the city’s facilities often don’t wait around for a call that may never come.
“They’re gonna run the streets,” he says. In the summers they’ll sleep in parks and alleys and in the winters, when the cold gets too much to bear, they’ll probably return to the facilities or go to a homeless shelter.
“This is the black eye the city doesn’t want to talk about,” says Fabian.
Essentially, the Administration of Child Services seems to be placing a wager that the number of kids unfit for foster care will be equal or less than the number of group care slots available. The consequences of losing this bet emerge in the slums and sidewalks of the city.
In a 2007 study, the Empire State Coalition of Youth and Family Services, an advocacy group in New York, found that approximately 3,800 homeless youths live on the city’s streets on any given night. Two years later Covenant House, which operates youth homeless shelters, concluded in another study that there existed a “growing crisis of homeless youth in New York City.”
The transition– or lack thereof– from group care into the real world serves as ground zero for this cycle of poverty.
“You go out to the subway and see people with mental health issues. This is where that population comes from,” says Lisa Chin, the social worker for 10 of the children at McMurray.
Fabian adds, “You go to the bus station on 42nd and 8th and it’s packed. With homeless.”
On a white board in the McMurray Home’s office, the names of the all the children in the house are listed on a grid. To the far right of each name is one of three color-coordinated designations: “success,” in green; “concern,” in orange; or “alarm,” in red. Between each name and designation is the number of weeks that the child has maintained his current color.
Near the top of the list is an 18-year-old named Kwame. Kwame has been success-green for 32 weeks, more than quadruple any other kid. As a prize, he gets to live in the house’s only single-room (Cecil lives in alone in double room not as a reward but as a precaution). He is not home during the day because he is in school.
Kwame represents the side of the spectrum opposite Cecil and presents a different sort of problem for Fabian. In the past, a kid like Kwame would be rewarded for his model behavior through the city’s Supervised Independent Living Program. With the program, Kwame could live in his own two-bedroom apartment with another deserving kid. The program allowed the young adults to experience real world responsibilities before transitioning out of care– waking up on time, cooking, time management. In 2010, there were 102 SLIP slots throughout the city. Kids typically stayed 12 to 18 months before moving out on their own, allowing a new batch to then step into the program. SLIP was especially helpful for older kids with no potential living arrangements post-group home.
“We identified the kids that had no resources, no family to return to, and they’re the ones we started prepping,” says Fabian.
The Program was eliminated during summer budget cuts.
“Now it’s tough,” he says. “I’m saying to my 32-week [success-green] kid ‘you’ve done great at X, Y, and Z– hey, I have a foster boarding home for you.’”
With slots dwindling, group homes must focus on keeping only the most difficult cases. As a result, well-behaved group home kids like Kwame– kids who have developed independence and self-sufficiency within the group care setting but are not yet ready for the real world– will be forced into the more intimate family setting of foster care.
Seeing kids thrown around at the whim of the system’s convenience can break or harden a man’s heart if he is not careful. The group home industry is not a pace for idealists.
“We don’t talk about dreams. We talk about reality,” says Fabian.
When Fabian talks his playing days, he can’t hide his teeth, no matter how hard he tries.
“I was good, man, I was good,” he says through a cantaloupe grin. After 20 years he can still rattle off his statistics from high school, college and his five years in the minors. “.516 batting average… eight for eight in the double header… 420 foot home run… stole, like, 80 bases…”
Despite a highly regarded college baseball career at SUNY New Paltz, Fabian says he slid all the way to the 46th round of the MLB draft before the Philadelphia Phillies picked him, and even then, only because his relative was friends with one of their scouts. But the drop was not for lack of skill.
“I was an asshole, man,” he says with chuckle.
He tells a story about the time he cursed out a major league scout because he thought he was a reporter. He shakes his head in nostalgia and mock disbelief as he concludes the tale,“…after that, they all knew I had an attitude.”
It’s hard to imagine that Edward Fabian, the one with the attitude. This Edward Fabian– the one driving the gold Toyota mini-van, the one wearing the purple button-down and tie combo that whispers elegance, the one who calms iron-lusting giants– this Edward Fabian fights the Sisyphean fight of finding a place in the world for those kids who have no home.
He eases the mini-van into a parallel parking spot near Episcopal’s office building in the South Bronx. For a few seconds he sits in silence.
Then Fabian sweeps up his left palm in a wide arc, guiding a visitor’s through the windshield toward the sidewalk on their left.
“See all this? This is what you get.”
Out the window: Two older boys in red shirts and red hats walking. A trio of men with beards and ripped jeans leaning on a wall smoking cigarettes. And a thin man in a loose brown shirt sitting on a ledge staring down at the pavement.