By age seven, Luke had lost both parents to acts of violence. He and his siblings were split up among relatives; he no longer had a place to call home. By the time he started first grade at his public school, he had begun to self-destruct.
He tried to jump out of bus windows. He ran into moving traffic. There were signs of self-mutilation. He was hospitalized in an acute care unit twice in a matter of days. Then he was referred to Elk Hill. During his first week there, he calmed himself by sucking on a pacifier. He refused to connect with teachers or students; he had no attention span.
Today, Luke has stabilized. He’s doing his schoolwork and playing with other children. He’s even back at his public school, where he continues to receive wrap-around services.
Founded in 1970 as a home for at-risk boys, Elk Hill offers comprehensive services for boys and girls ages four to twenty-one, most from low-income families. The original campus is located in Goochland County. Elk Hill also operates in eight Central Virginia communities: Albemarle, Charlottesville, Fluvanna, Goochland, Henrico, New Kent, Powhatan, and Richmond.
In the past year, more than 400 local children were served through Elk Hill programs, which include a day school, community services, day treatment for students in twenty-six central Virginia schools, summer camps, a residential program, and group homes. The need for such services is vast. Medicaid, state, and local aid have strict eligibility requirements, resulting in funding gaps even for low-income families. Fifteen percent (283,000) of all children in Virginia live in poverty. That’s an increase of 65,000 children since 2006. About 44,000 of these kids live in communities served by Elk Hill.
Early intervention is the common thread that runs through Elk Hill programs, where the mantra is “sooner, stronger, healthier.” The sooner kids with mental illness get help, school officials say, the more likely it is they’ll lead full, healthy lives.
“It is so important to treat the illness early,” says Laura Easter, PhD, Elk Hill’s director of community services. “Kids are so receptive to learning. But if they don’t get the treatment they need, they’ve lost the time when they should have been developing skills.”
Early-intervention programs allow children to stay with their families and in their schools while receiving customized services. It is a highly cost-effective approach. For every dollar spent on successful early intervention, $10 is saved in future costs (residential care, psychiatric care, juvenile justice, adult corrections, welfare, unemployment, and services for homeless Virginians).
Just as important, early intervention gets results. “It makes an incredible difference when we address problems early,” Easter says. “Those kids go on to blossom; they learn how to thrive and achieve. The others lose years; they face an uphill battle.”
For vulnerable children, Elk Hill acts as a very real safety net. “The most important thing these kids get here is what they take from us for the future,” says Derrick Johnson, head of Elk Hill’s Varina school. “We want them to learn to sustain themselves for a lifetime.”