Cutbacks May Close Teen Homes Excelsior, Morning Star Losing Major Part Of Their Funding
Some of Spokane’s sanctuaries for troubled children are getting shaken up, if not eventually shut down by the state.
Dozens of kids may soon be pulled from Excelsior, the Morning Star Boys Ranch and other residential treatment centers.
Word of the changes to two of Spokane’s oldest child centers has triggered an uproar. A U.S. senator is looking into the plan, triggered by the state’s desire to save money and improve services.
For many of the kids, most of whom suffer from mental, drug or abuse problems, it would be the latest move in a brief life of hopping from foster homes and other state houses.
One 14-year-old girl at Excelsior has already bounced from 17 foster homes and four psychiatric institutions. A 16-year-old resident is now working with her 23rd counselor.
The state will likely tell them to move again within four months - to some place across the state.
“It may create some initial trauma, but it may also be better for the child in the long run,” said Carole Cheatle, of the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The state’s changes reflect a crusade to improve juvenile treatment programs to make them more costeffective and better suited to the needs of the children, Cheatle said.
Excelsior is losing about a third of its total annual budget, Morning Star about 70 percent.
The two non-profit groups, which care for a combined 110 kids between ages 8 and 17, lost the funding in the state’s recent competitive bidding for residential treatment contracts.
The new state contracts, to be signed Jan. 15, spread the money around to other firms, including a Whidbey Island for-profit company.
Excelsior and Morning Star officials say the state shouldn’t help businesses profit from disturbed children.
They also say their organizations never received bad evaluations from the state. They hope to persuade legislators to hold a hearing on changes in the funding arrangement which had been in place for the past 12 years.
Excelsior, a big recipient of local United Way donations, has the support of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray said Friday she will do what she can to help.
Murray toured the center, off Indian Trail Road, during a statewide look at youth violence earlier this year. “I found nothing else that replicated the facility in the state,” she said.
“I have vivid memories of these kids,” Murray said, recalling several who told her they never found anyone who cared about them until they arrived at Excelsior.
Murray has quoted Excelsior kids in Washington, D.C., speeches. She said Friday she will see if she can help stop the state from pulling kids out of the center. “I might call (Governor Mike) Lowry,” she said.
On Friday, Excelsior was quiet. Its classrooms were empty for the holidays. In one leisure room a dozen girls, aged 9 to 12, chatted, watched television and played video games. One girl played with a doll.
Monica Walters, Excelsior associate director, said losing half of the center’s state money means it will not be able to care for 29 of its 65 girls, unless it comes up with new sources of cash.
She doesn’t know where the children will go. She also hasn’t told any of them yet. She doesn’t want to scare them, she said, until she is sure they must go.
Walters said Excelsior is happy to compete for the state dollars, but called the state’s decision to give much business to a for-profit company, an “unwise and unethical use of tax dollars.”
Service Alternatives for Washington is a Whidbey Island firm that landed contracts to care for 187 disturbed children in the state.
“What this company does best is tailor services to the individual child,” said Bill Skubi, company spokesman.
He also said the company works with kids nobody else wants to deal with, and finds creative solutions for kids who don’t fit existing programs.
Skubi said the company operates much like a non-profit firm, investing profits into its services. He said the owner’s salary this year was $48,000.
But Service Alternatives doesn’t yet have the facilities to care for the children the state will pay it to look after.
In fact, it is considering subcontracting some its child care to Morning Star Boys Ranch, the same Spokane non-profit it beat in the state contract bidding.
Morning Star, near Browne Mountain in south Spokane, has served as a treatment center for disturbed boys for 38 years.
State plans call for moving some kids from its Spokane facilities in about four months, or possibly as late as June when school is out.