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Neighbors describe their daily fears about group home residents

Until the group home moved into her southeastern Baltimore County neighborhood, Dot Horrocks had never felt so afraid. Teenage boys living in the privately run facility have, she said, peeked into her window and exposed themselves from the group home.

Now Horrocks, a 51-year-old medical secretary, keeps her blinds closed and won't walk outside without company. Her brother moved in, largely so she wouldn't be alone while her husband works a night shift.

"I have been living there since September 1982, and I have never been afraid to walk outside my door until this group home came last September," said Horrocks, who lives in the Sue Creek Landing area of Essex. "I will not even walk my dogs by myself."

Complaints about the effect of children's group homes on neighborhoods have already surfaced in Annapolis hearings on improving state oversight of the facilities. State lawmakers plan to focus on the issue at another hearing tomorrow.

Some lawmakers hope property owners' vehemence will sway Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to support reform.

The issue, which has been the subject of angry neighborhood meetings and complaints for years, became a source of even more concern after the governor's recent announcement that the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School would close and that some of the juvenile delinquents there would move to group homes.

"That scares me to death," said Gerri DeLuna, 72. The retired nurse from Joppatowne won't go outside because, she says, boys living in a group home next to her rancher curse, spit at her dog, litter and bother her for cash.

While most of the complaints involve such minor grievances as wandering around and talking loudly at night, some youths have committed more serious crimes.

In 2002, an 18-year-old brandishing a kitchen knife chased his counselor out of the house near DeLuna and turned on the stove's gas burners, threatening to burn down the place, according to court papers. There was a half-hour standoff with sheriff's deputies outside the residence before the boy gave himself up. His case was later forwarded to juvenile court. No injuries were reported.

Complaints disputed

Ed Matricardi heads the company that runs that group home, among 13 facilities for 38 clients in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties. He said company policy calls for close supervision and for staff to address incidents in the rare occasions they arise.

The company, REM-Maryland Inc., also runs the home in Essex near Horrocks. Matricardi disputed the neighbors' complaints, saying "probably none of that is true."

"These are homes that I wouldn't mind living in," Matricardi added. "We become a part of the neighborhood. We operate good homes. If you're asking about our impact in the Baltimore community, I think it's positive."

Recent inspections of REM's Essex facility by the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found that one resident should not have been living there because he was older than 21 years. Another resident, who was suffering from hypertension and diabetes, lacked records of required medical care, the inspection report said. There was a crack in one bedroom window, a stair rail was missing and a wall had a hole 1 foot in diameter.

State officials have opposed an overhaul of the group home system, saying they are taking steps to strengthen the licensing and monitoring of the homes. Among them, the officials said at a recent hearing, are more thorough inspections to make sure the facilities are good neighbors and efforts to involve the community in locating the homes.

Norris West, a spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, said the agency expects and encourages group homes to be good neighbors. West challenged the complaints that group homes are the source of the community problems.

"Those problems," he said, "occur in many communities that do not have group homes. The answer to all these problems is to have residents control their communities and involve their law-enforcement partners when necessary."

LaWanda Edwards, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services, said tentative plans for closing Hickey don't call for sending "very many children, if any" to group homes.

Maryland has licensed 500 group homes serving 2,700 youths who left their families for reasons of abuse, neglect, delinquency or medical issues. An industry representative acknowledges that some group home residents cause problems in their neighborhoods.

"But it's the very atypical group home, and it's the kind of situation that can be corrected with proper supervision" by state inspectors and the youths' case workers, said Jim McComb of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth.

It's difficult to gauge group homes' impact on communities because the homes don't always report incidents to state regulators. The state doesn't have a master list of homes, their addresses and residents, though officials say they are developing one. And police don't keep statistics on the facilities.

Baltimore County Police Capt. Barry Barber, commander of the Woodlawn precinct, said his department often doesn't know whether it's dealing with a group home or a resident because the state doesn't provide that information and the facilities and residents move around.

Quality of life

Barber said the youths don't seem to be responsible for violent crimes, but investigators have "very often" traced unarmed robberies and automobile thefts to them. "It happens a lot more than people think," Barber said.

In more than a dozen interviews, visits to community meetings and several complaints on file with the state, homeowners describe the daily dread of living near the group homes.

While the neighbors can't point to serious acts of violence, they complain that their quality of life has plummeted after the facilities moved into their suburban communities - often without notice - bringing poorly supervised youths who curse, litter, drink and trespass.

"You don't feel safe," said Penny McCrimmon, a Randallstown community activist who said the youths talk loudly on corners, wander the streets at night and have sex on a hill behind her house.

The impact of group homes is most deeply felt in Randallstown, Woodlawn and other areas in western Baltimore County. County officials say the area has the highest concentration of facilities in the state - 120 facilities with 1,000 youths.

"They cause problems in the streets. They cause problems in the schools," said County Executive James T. Smith Jr.

Seeking to lessen the impact, Smith, who is scheduled to testify before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee tomorrow, said he is lobbying state officials to improve oversight of the facilities, strengthen therapy and other support services for the youths, and spread licenses to underserved areas in other counties.

But pointing to federal fair housing and other laws, Smith said he would not challenge companies seeking to open new facilities in the county.

That angers homeowners, who encourage the county to fight. Some even suggest that state officials encourage the facilities to move elsewhere by refusing to pay those in the county.

"Don't tell us that our hands are tied," said Michael O. Ramsey, a lawyer from Randallstown who lives near a group home for juvenile sex offenders. "One of the biggest joys is being able to walk along, or have your kids walk along, without fear."

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