Children in transition have a home in Piscataway

Home News Tribune Online 12/21/07

By Rick Malwitz, Staff Writer

PISCATAWAY — A reward for working at the Children's Transitional Residence can be quite simple.

"We had one boy, when he left he thanked his supervisor for teaching him how to tie his shoes," recalled Joyce Clark-Addison, the program director at the residential treatment program, where the population of children, who range in age from 5 to 10, is limited to eight.

At a Christmas party yesterday, six of seven young residents here acted out scenes from " "Twas the Night Before Christmas." They sang traditional Christmas songs and had a surprise visit from Santa Claus, who, when asked by one child where his reindeer were, said they were stranded on I-287.

Each of the seven children was given two wrapped presents by the visiting Santa, and they tore into them as children naturally do.

"It is our hope that today they will feel like normal kids," said Chris Kosseff, president of University Behavioral HealthCare, a part of the UMDNJ which operates the residence under contract from the state.

While the kids look quite normal ripping into Christmas presents, their backgrounds are anything but normal.

"They have significant mental illnesses, and no one competent to care for them," said Kosseff.

They have proven to be too difficult for their natural parents or foster parents. They enter the program here with referrals from inpatient hospital units in New Jersey.

"Often the parents are in drug treatment, or incarcerated," said Kosseff, who cannot be more specific about the children and their stories.

The children singing for about 20 staff and visitors could not be identified or photographed by outsiders, under strict confidentiality guidelines established by the state Division of Youth and Family Services. The staff was able to photograph them posing with Santa.

After six of the children acted out parts of the famed Christmas poem by Clement Moore — read with proper animation by staff member Christine Lucyk — one of the six ran from the room in tears. The seventh child simply watched the goings on.

The boy in tears eventually returned in time to participate in the finish of the "Twelve Days of Christmas."

Following "Jingle Bells," and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," they sang "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and that song served as a cue for Santa Claus who, as if by magic, suddenly appeared behind sliding glass doors, loaded with gifts.

The one child who did not participate in the singing, and the one briefly in tears, are the newest residents, explained Dr. Elaine Herzog, a UBHC director. "The children are usually overwhelmed when they get here. They haven't learned to trust adults," she said.

The contract the UBHC has with the state permits children to be in this setting for six months, and the task from day one is to prepare them to leave.

"We work on their discharge from the beginning," she said.

One indication of how vulnerable the children are when they arrive is a common concern.

"They want to know what happens at night, what happens when it's dark," said Clark-Addison.

Many of the children arrive having suffered from physical and sexual abuse, she explained.

The children sleep on the first floor of the house on Hoes Lane, opened in 1992 and built to resemble a somewhat typical suburban home.

To allay the nighttime concerns, two staff members spend the overnight period awake in a common area outside the bedrooms, ready to deal with fears, nightmares and episodes of bed wetting.

During the day, the children are taken to adjacent UMDNJ facilities for their schooling.

Within the common area are bookshelves, with books for the children to read or have read to them by a supervisor.

"We get children from homes where there are no books, where no one has ever read them a bedtime story," said Clark-Addison.

"We emphasize one-on-one treatment, teaching them social skills and helping them to begin trusting adults," said Herzog.

Asked to explain the perks of his job, supervisor Charles-Omar Sutton said: "You really get involved in their lives. You heard what they said when I came into the room, "Mister Omar, Mister Omar.' That's my reward."

Among the guests at the Christmas party was Dr. William J. Owen Jr., the new president of UMDNJ, who was making his first visit to the facility.

"There are two components of what we do at UMDNJ — we're a school and we provide a service. We have both school and service components here, and both are spectacular components," said Owen.

All potential staff members, said Clark-Addison, "come here hoping to make a difference. But it's not for everyone. It takes special people to stay."

Clark-Addison, who has been with UMDNJ for 23 years, appreciates their youthful enthusiasm of the staff.

"Thank God for young people," she said.

She said she received her most meaningful reward when a young man who had spent time here in the 1990s returned to visit, after having joined the Marines.

"He came here to thank us for what we meant to him. Without this place, he said he would never have been a Marine," said Clark-Addison.