Former residents of Lexington's Crittenton home hate to see it go

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comNovember 17, 2013 

When Joette McCarthy heard that Lexington's Florence Crittenton Home was closing, she thought of the day in late December 1970 when she arrived there as a terrified high school student. She also thought about the strength she gained when she left.

McCarthy, 61, is among the former residents of Lexington's Florence Crittenton Home concerned that the home is scheduled to shut down Nov. 26 after serving pregnant women in this community for 119 years. The home will close its doors largely as a result of a national change in philosophy over how to serve pregnant teens.

McCarthy went to the Florence Crittenton home because she was hiding her pregnancy from her father who she had lived with in Northern Kentucky. Even if she hadn't been hiding, in those days, the Florence Crittenton home on West Fourth Street was one of the only places for McCarthy to continue her education because pregnant girls could not attend public high school, she said.

McCarthy had the moral support of her mother who lived in Lexington, but the Florence Crittenton home provided services that were not available to single girls who waited out their pregnancies at home.

"It was a great source of comfort to be with so many girls who were in the same situation," said McCarthy, who placed her son for adoption. "I think the girls today deserve the same opportunities and care that I received at that time."

The issues that prompted the decision to close Florence Crittenton represent a shift in philosophy of how vulnerable children — and, in this case, teens — are best served. The home is a residential treatment center that primarily serves girls under 18 who are pregnant or parenting and their children.

In announcing the Nov. 26 closing earlier this month, Florence Crittenton's executive director Mary Venezie said the Cabinet for Health and Family Services was no longer referring girls to the home. As a result, she said, the home did not have the money to survive.

In the eyes of the state, the girls under 18 served by Florence Crittenton are children.

Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, confirmed that the Cabinet had been moving away from placing children in facilities that solely provide residential group care. She said national research "tells us that children tend to do better in more homelike settings."

"For the past several years, the Department for Community Based Services has been moving toward placing children in more homelike environments with treatment provided in the home," Midkiff said. "If children do require residential care, we want to reduce the length of stay to a more clinically appropriate time and safely step children down into therapeutic foster homes."

University of Louisville child welfare researcher Crystal Collins-Camargo said the Cabinet's philosophy "is what we are seeing across the country in terms of residential care."

Collins-Camargo, director of U of L's National Quality Improvement Center on the Privatization of Child Welfare Services, said residential care is now viewed as "a short-term treatment option." Pregnant teens are placed with a foster family who provide a more permanent home for the girl and the baby while the girl learns to become a parent, officials have said.

A change was coming

Venezie said she noticed over the summer that the Cabinet was placing fewer children at Florence Crittenton — a move that would cripple the organization financially.

The state has historically provided Florence Crittenton with a large chunk of its annual budget of about $600,000. Midkiff said the Cabinet had allotted the Florence Crittenton Home $561,011 in 2013 and $362,842 in 2012 to care for the children who were placed there.

The home has five girls and four infants this fall. The numbers are down from about 11 girls and eight infants in 2012, Venezie said. (The home is looking for new placements for those who were in the home.)

Florence Crittenton board chairman Mike Wickline reiterated last week that while the private nonprofit was closing Nov. 26, officials were looking for a new population to serve so that it could reopen.

That's what Michelle M. Sanborn, president of the Frankfort-based Children's Alliance, is pulling for. The Children's Alliance is an association of residential and foster care agencies whose members includes Florence Crittenton.

Even though there is a shift in attitudes about residential treatment centers, Sanborn thinks there are situations where they have proved successful. She said Kentucky needs "a full continuum of children services" from hospital and residential care to in-home services.

The Rev. Randy Coy, president and CEO of the Kentucky United Methodist Homes for Children & Youth in Versailles said that facility's focus has shifted after primarily being a residential center. The home has an independent living program for young adults and oversees a state Department for Juvenile Justice program for in-home monitoring for offenders.

When the home builds a new facility, there will be fewer residential treatment beds: 16 instead of 34, Coy said.

Coy said his organization had decided that "we would be better engaged if we could go into the community in a more preventative kind of way, if we could work with families earlier in the process so that there's no need to remove the child."

A deep history

Society had much different attitudes about what was best for vulnerable juveniles and for single pregnant females in 1894 when the Florence Crittenton Home opened in Lexington.

That's when a group of citizens, concerned about the problem of "wayward girls," decided to establish a rescue home called the House of Mercy, Venezie said.

According to Herald-Leader archives, the home in 1921 affiliated with a national organization funded through the work of Charles Crittenton, a self-made millionaire who created homes across the country for unmarried girls who were expecting. Crittenton began his work in the late 1800s after his 4-year-old daughter Florence died of scarlet fever, according to a Crittenton website.

Hundreds of single pregnant women and girls sought refuge at Lexington's Florence Crittenton because they could not live at home or they could not financially support themselves. Record books that date back to the early 1900s include a variety of details about those who used to stay there, including their names, ages, hometowns and whether they kept their children or placed them for adoption.

Venezie is protective of the identity of anyone who spent time at Florence Crittenton. There are women who contact her whose husbands and children don't know that they were once pregnant and unmarried — and that they placed a child for adoption. Venezie is meeting with UK history and library officials in the next several days in an effort to preserve the records and the history of the home.

Venezie said she hears from successful people whose mothers lived at the home before they were born.

Sometimes she hears from women who openly tell people about the help they received at Florence Crittenton.

Ericka Perkins, 19, of Richmond recalled when she arrived at the home. She lost her infant son. She was four or five months behind schedule to graduate from high school. But she turned things around. She attended the Fayette County alternative school on campus and learned the skills that helped her improve her personal life.

"I got my son back. I graduated on time," she said. "They helped with parenting classes, therapy, anger issues. Usually my coping was running away. They helped me find other coping skills."

Both McCarthy and Perkins, who is raising two children, said the skills they learned at Florence Crittenton gave them strength.

"I hate to see it close," Perkins said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears

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