Home as a haven: An interview with Children’s Home of Kingston’s Eric Houghtaling

Eric Houghtaling (photo by Phyllis McCabe)

This Saturday, May 11, The Children’s Home of Kingston will revive an old tradition with its “Partnership Recognition” dinner at the Capital Tavern, on the grounds of the Wiltwyck Golf Club. The funds raised will support the nonprofit organization, which operates a school and residential home for boys suffering from trauma. Tickets are $125, and the dinner will honor chef and author Arshay Cooper, the Bruderhof and two local businesses, Rondout Savings Bank and The Reis Insurance Group.

Located in a cluster of buildings on a bluff in Ponckhockie overlooking the Rondout Creek — the official address is 26 Grove St. — The Children’s Home has been serving troubled kids since 1876, when a small group of local women raised money from local churches to fund a facility whose goal was to provide “temporary care and training of friendless, neglected or destitute children” along with “respectable aged persons.” The Industrial Home of the City of Kingston, as it was then called, was first situated Uptown and then on Broadway before the city’s business elite helped raise money for a new building on East Chester Street, which was completed in 1903.

Mary Isabella Forsyth was the prime mover and shaker for the Home and served as the president of its Board of Managers from its beginnings until her death in 1914. After that the clientele evolved from paupers and orphans to children who came from broken homes, as the institution morphed from a charitable institution, initially funded by contributions from churches, to a state-accredited facility fulfilling a specific set of needs. In the 1940s, the name was changed to The Children’s Home and it became an all-boys institution. In 1964, with guidance from the Child Welfare League of America, a full menu of educational, therapeutic and recreational services was developed. In the late 1970s, the home moved from East Chester Street to its present location on Grove Street, with the former Gothic-styled Crane mansion serving as the administrative headquarters and a series of newer buildings housing the school and residences, as well as residential and treatment facilities. I recently interviewed the Home’s executive director Eric Houghtaling by phone:

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Kingston Times: What is your capacity and who qualifies? 

Eric Houghtaling: We have 24 beds on campus and are licensed by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services. We can accept boys as young as eight and as old as 21. Currently our youngest boy is 10 and the oldest is 19. We’re one of a number of residential treatment centers in the region. All of our kids have had some kind of trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse, neglect, developmental challenges, and learning disabilities. We have kids from as far south as New York City north to Glens Falls.

We also have 24 seats in our day school program, which sets us apart: not every agency has an on-campus school, which is attended by both our residential guys and kids from local school districts. In our day program we have kids from Ulster, Dutchess, Greene, Orange and Columbia counties. 

All of our beds are called “hard to place” — a lot of our boys don’t fit neatly into the category of mental health, developmental disabilities or psychiatric problems. They may have challenges across all three areas, which makes them more difficult to place in certain facilities. Some have been at other facilities that weren’t right for them, maybe because they were too large. 

KT: What is the average length of stay?

EH: It’s all about permanency planning: we’re supposed to be a temporary stopping point. We’ve got kids here for six months and some for a few years. The average is about 18 months. We try to make it as homey as we can.

There’s no time limit on how long they can be here, but the state likes us to get kids back home. A federal bipartisan law enacted in 2018 called the Family First Act is asking states to look at congregate care facilities and reduce the number of youth in these types of facilities and length of stay. We’re going to have some new guidelines to follow and will have to engage their families. Kids don’t always come from a parent; they might [have been living with] a grandparent or uncle or aunt. The idea is to get them prepared to return to their home community. We are always striving to have kids in the least restrictive environment.

KT: But don’t these kids come from troubled homes? How do you work with the families when they are seriously dysfunctional?

EH: That’s where it gets tricky. We have to work with who’s involved. In many cases the child is placed with us through the county Department of Social Services units and we’d work with the caseworker from that particular county. If a boy can’t return home, then we have to look at an alternative living plan for him. We also have kids placed by their school districts, who are not making it in their classrooms due to having difficulties at home or in the community. 

KT: Do many of the boys successfully re-adapt to being back home?

EH: We always hope for the best. Sometimes there is recidivism and some kids re-enter the facility, but we’ve had quite a few successes. They’re allowed to stay with us until their 22nd birthday and over the last year we had three in that group who all successfully transitioned to adult services. One went back to Schenectady and is living in a supportive apartment program. Another is from New York City and doesn’t have any family resources, so he’s here in Ulster County at the ARC of Ulster-Greene residences. Another boy went to a facility in Orange County. It’s a broad bunch: this young man had multiple disabilities. It’s challenging but rewarding work. 

KT: Can you describe the school? What kind of teacher-student ratios does it have?

EH: The classrooms are all special education. In our middle school, we have six students in a class with one teacher and two aides. They are taught all major subjects in their classroom and also have art, music and phys ed. In the high school the ratios are eight students to one teacher to one aide. Some boys require 1 to 1 aides and some classrooms have more teachers. 

KT: How to you prepare the kids to go back to their home communities?

EH: You try to give kids the tools to deal with that trauma and provide them with that therapeutic piece. It’s like a tool belt: they’re going to need intervention services and probably will need to be in some kind of special education classroom. 

KT: Do you have kids coming out of the criminal juvenile justice system?

EH: Not as frequently as in the 1950s through the 1970s. If the kids do have any past criminal history, their crime was minor. More of our kids have had a traumatic experience. The kind of trauma they’ve suffered includes boys born drug addicted and kids who suffered physical abuse or were sexually abused at an early age.

KT: Do the boys have visitors? What is the size of your staff?

EH: In our residential program one or two boys don’t have a visiting or permanent family. We have about 135 people working on staff. 

KT: What is the kids’ week like?

EH: They have therapy once a week. They see our consulting psychiatrist for medication monitoring, attend community meetings in the residences, and participate in regularly scheduled recreational activities. They also have some contemplative time. They go out and do things in the community. This Sunday for example a group of boys and staff are helping out at the Kingston Classic by manning a water station. We’ll participate in the Kingston Clean Sweep in early May. Kids do volunteer work at local churches and help fix things. We try to be good community partners. 

KT: The older buildings at The Home are strikingly picturesque.

EH: It was the Crane family mansion, then it was the Holy Child Orphanage, then St. Ursula’s school, which was a Catholic school that was a precursor to Coleman. 

KT: Where do you get your funding?

EH: Most of it comes from the state. Each county and school district pays a fee for kids to live and go to school here. Our school is licensed and approved by the state Department of Education. 

KT: What does money from your private fundraisers pay for?

EH: It allows us to provide extra services such as therapeutic recreation. These kinds of activities really help the kids. Animal therapy is at the top of the list: kids work with the Hudson Valley Donkey Park in Ulster Park and with therapy dogs in the school or residential program. The animals have a calming effect. We’re exploring the possibility of entering into an agreement with an equine program located in Kerhonkson.

KT: What other kinds of extra-curricular activities do you provide?

EH: We also have a bicycle/maintenance repair program with volunteers from the Bruderhof. We are big on phy sed and push any kind of team sports. We have a basketball team and we’re applying for Friend and Neighbor status, which would allow us to play other local high school varsity teams. Right now we can play recreational games with other schools but not post-season tournaments. We’ve played a couple of other local private schools. Getting Friend and Neighbor status through Section 9 athletics (Section 9 refers to the Hudson Valley region of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association) … would enable us to play any high school for any sport. When fall rolls around, we could have a cross-country team. 

KT: Can you sum up the value for the boys of the various activities they participate in at The Children’s Home?

EH: It builds them up. If you lived through a traumatic experience it can impact your life in so many facets. The feelings of worthlessness become pervasive in daily life. Playing successfully on the basketball team, working with donkeys, or following instructions to build a wooden boat at the Maritime Museum lifts the kids up and gives them self-esteem. 

KT: What about the arts? 

EH: The Blue Dragon is the school mascot and our art teacher posted photos on our Facebook page of the beautiful paintings of it our kids did in art class. We’ve got some pretty talented artists. The art teacher is always working on different creative ways for them to express themselves. The interests of our kids are so diverse you just don’t know who’s going to come next on board, and not every kid likes sports or art or riding bikes.

KT: What kind of recreational facilities do you have on site?

EH: We have large-screen TVs, video games, a rec room with weight and exercise equipment, a movie room, and ping pong tables and Foosball stations. We have a huge field below our buildings where the kids can play baseball, soccer, and other sports. 

KT: Do you have other fundraisers besides the May 11 dinner?

EH: Our big one is the March of Champions [held at Dietz Stadium], which is on Aug. 3 and in its 24th year. There are six competing corps and two exhibition corps from all over region, including New Jersey and Connecticut. They charge a fee to compete and we help them with travel expenses. Tickets to attend are $20. 

KT: What’s the significance of the upcoming fundraiser dinner?

EH: This is our inaugural recognition dinner. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s we did something similar, but we haven’t done this for quite a while. We wanted to recognize some of our community partners. 

KT: What will people get for $125, besides the satisfaction of supporting The Children’s Home?

EH: A full sit-down meal at Capital Tavern, including cocktails, appetizers, and dessert. We’re honoring Rondout Savings Bank, which is one of the many local banks we do business with. The Reis Insurance Group, another local organization we’re honoring, provides our property and casualty insurance. … There’s so many venues we could have chosen to honor. Some local businesses have given us grants and individuals have also sent us money. Even companies such as Woodstock Chimes and Bread Alone, which we don’t necessarily do business with, have supported us. I can’t even mention all the businesses that sponsor or buy ads for our March of Champions program. 

KT: You’re also honoring an individual, Arshay Cooper. Who is he?

EH: He’s a gentleman who grew up on the south side of Chicago in the projects. He was on the path to becoming a gang member but got involved in his high school crew team and it turned his life around. He’s a classically trained chef and he used to travel with professional wrestlers as their chef. He’s also a rowing coach and inspirational speaker and he wrote a book called Suga Water that’s being made into a film. He’s the most humble person you’d ever meet. He lives in New York City and has been here many times. Everybody in the area rowing team considers him the Michael Jordan of the sport.

KT: Speaking of crew and rowing, are any of the boys involved with that?

EH: We had boys working with the Hudson River Maritime Museum on America Rows, a youth rowing program that unfortunately is no longer active in Kingston. However, the museum gives us two scholarships every semester for boys to work at their boat building school. So far six boys have gone through the program.

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