Group home familiar with escapes

sgilman@newsobserver.comApril 25, 2014 

He might have been the first to die, but he wasn’t the first to run away.

Khalil Todd, 12, was one of several boys living at The Lighthouse, a group home at 1521 Ranch Road near Clayton. Around 8:20 p.m. on March 10, Khalil was in the road in front of the house.

Brian Session of 3907 Robin Lane, Clayton, accidentally hit Khalil with his 2008 Honda Accord, and the boy died on the scene. A neighbor said Session tried to revive Khalil, saying, “Let him breath, let him breath, God, just let him breath.”

Khalil never did.

The Lighthouse is a Level III group home, meaning it takes young clients who need the highest level of care.

“They have a diagnoses, something like a mental disorder, where they need to have someone wait on them 24 hours a day,” said Tony Harris, supervisor of licensing and recruitment for the N.C. Division of Social Services.

“There is normally a lot of stuff going on with them, usually mental health, and foster parents are not equipped to deal with them,” Harris added.

Group homes like The Lighthouse have kids who live there around the clock, but the staff rotates on eight-hour shifts. Harris said staff members “make sure they get to school, get their medications.”

And they are supposed to keep kids safe. But it’s a tough job.

Between April and October of 2011, law enforcement responded to 19 calls at The Lighthouse, according to public records. Of those calls, eight were for “out-of-control behaviors, assaults, threats of assault, destruction of property, fights between clients and threats to stab staff,” according to a November 2011 report by the state’s Division of Health Service Regulation, part of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, or DHHS.

And six “involved clients running away from the home,” the agency added.

On April 3 of that year, the agency reported, “Client No. 15 ran outside and began dodging oncoming traffic ... stating he ‘wanted to play chicken.’”

A Sept. 9 incident involved “Client No. 1 striking Client No. 2 in the forehead with a door, leaving a gash requiring seven stitches.”

On Oct. 14, an incident involved “Client No. 2 putting a staff person in a choke hold twice, putting his arm through a window and picking up glass, threatening staff.”

Sometimes these violent incidents occur because a new kid arrives and changes the atmosphere of the home, according to the Division of Health Service Regulation, or DHSR. An October 2011 interview shows a staff member of The Lighthouse reporting that “the frequency and intensity of violent incidences had increased dramatically since Client No. 2 was admitted in August 2011.”

Sometimes the clients don’t want to stay. In 2013, kids ran away from The Lighthouse 10 times between May and August, according to the DHSR. Client No. 4 ran away five of those times.

“Client No. 4 comes to the facility by way of jail, where he was arrested for communicating threats and disorderly conduct,” the agency reported. “Client No. 4 has been placed in and out of foster homes his entire life and is currently in [Social Services’] custody. Client No. 4 has eloped [run away] from his last Level III home several times.”

The agency reported that The Lighthouse had no plan to address the “elopements,” or runaways.

Elopements put the group home in violation of rules put in place by the DHHS. Walt Caison, community policy manager for DHHS, said the department’s goal is to keep clients safe.

“In a level three group home, they include 24 hours of supervision,” Caison said. “So even during the night, when the kids are sleeping, there is somebody awake that is mindful of what each of the kids is doing.”

“In general,” Caison said, “we monitor kids and ensure that they stay safe and don’t get into any mischief.”

A mother’s hope

That was the hope of Khalil’s mother, Carol Todd, who put him in the group home. Young Khalil, when he was about 7 or 8, lived with his mother and sisters in a cheery yellow house at 241 Cedar Drive in Zebulon, where daffodils are now pushing through the soil. He was a nice kid, former neighbors said.

“He wasn’t violent, played well with the kids,” said Timothy Glover, whose son used to play with Khalil. “He was a real intelligent young man. I thought well of him. He was mannerful.”

Though he was physically and mentally healthy, something was missing from Khalil’s life, Glover said.

“He needed a little male guidance,” Glover said. “He was a young man in search of being part of something.”

Mohammad Haleem, who now teaches at Rising Star Christian School in Smithfield, said he was Khalil’s math teacher at South Campus Community Middle School in Smithfield.

“Behavioral-wise, he was challenging, but he had a good heart,” Haleem said of Khalil. “As time went on, he matured, and his behavior became much better.”

George Creech, who lives next to the Todds’ old house, said young Khalil changed for the worse last year. “He was a nice-acting kid, just all of a sudden just started acting up,” Creech said. “He started misbehaving in school.”

Last year, Creech said, the Todds moved to 310 Horton St. in Zebulon. Creech said Khalil became violent and even attacked his mother so ferociously police officers had to come to the house to pull him off.

“They got where they couldn’t handle him,” Creech said. “She told me he couldn’t stay there no more.”

So Khalil ended up at The Lighthouse.

Who’s to blame?

When a kid runs away from a group home, Caison said, it’s hard to know if it was a result of adult negligence or a kid’s cleverness. “That’s impossible to answer specifically without knowing the facts,” he said. “This kid leaves a facility, and it is because the kid was watching and planning his move to get out that way, or maybe somebody wasn’t paying attention who should have been paying attention. Elopements can be due to a lot of different things.”

Whether it results in a staff member successfully coaxing a kid back from a neighbor’s yard or the death of a 12-year-old, elopements are something staff members want to avoid.

In a July 2013 interview with the Division of Health Service Regulation, a staff member said he thought The Lighthouse did a good job keeping the kids in check.

“I feel we do a good job monitoring and supervising the clients in the facility,” the employee said. “We have some challenging behaviors, and the clients in the facility will mimic each other’s behaviors. If one client is acting out, it may trigger another client to act out.”

The staff member blamed elopements that year on the arrival of “Client No. 2.”

“After he arrived and started running, the other clients started running as well,” the employee said. “On the day when all of the clients ran together, we had staff in place and they responded, but the clients all ran at the same time from different locations. Staff attempted to stop them, but they just kept running.”

On that day – May 1, 2103 – three clients were living at group home. Despite staff intervention, all three ran away, and the elopements ended in their arrest for stealing from a local store and evading police officers, according to a report by Division of Health Service Regulation. The Johnston County Sheriff’s Office returned the kids to The Lighthouse later that day.

No one’s talking

In Khalil Todd’s case, Lighthouse representatives would not comment when asked why he was away from the house and in the road on the night of his death.

The N.C. Division of Health Service Regulation also declined comment on the reports. An April report from the Division of Health Service Regulation, however, shows that Khalil ran out of the house after staff members talked with clients about cleaning rooms and making their beds. Staff was looking and calling for Khalil when the car hit him.

The company that owns The Lighthouse is KMG Holdings, Inc. Owner Michael Graham did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him.

The Lighthouse is under the placement jurisdiction of Alliance Behavior Healthcare. That means Alliance is responsible for vetting mental health clients in Johnston County and placing them in appropriate facilities. The Lighthouse is among the group homes approved and used by Alliance.

Alliance’s clinical director, Sean Schreiber, declined to comment on The Lighthouse or Khalil’s case.

“We are very stringent about confidentiality and what we are able to share,” Schreiber said.

‘He’s better than safe’

Though the reasons for Khalil’s placement at The Lighthouse and the events surrounding his elopement and death are shrouded in confidentiality, hope shone in one corner of his story: his funeral on March 15 at William Toney’s Funeral Home in Zebulon.

“I heard his mama say, ‘He’s getting better,’” the Rev. Larry Neal said, gesturing in his long black robe. “And God is wanting us to get better. He isn’t going to leave us where we are.”

White flowers framed Khalil’s light-blue casket, and friends and family packed the small chapel, endorsing Neal’s words often with “Yeah” and “Amen.”

“You and I cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless we become like a little child,” Neal said. “You and I have to be born again like this precious little boy. He’s safe.”

“Yeah,” came the reply from the audience.

“He’s better than safe.”

“Hallelujah,” came the response.

“He’s better than safe.”

“Thank you, God,” someone said.

Gilman: 919-829-8955

The Clayton News Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service