The element I like the most about a private, non-profit group's planto build and operate near Fallston a cluster of homes to house physically and sexually abused young children is this: There will be no walls around it.

No fence. No gate. No structure reminiscent of penal impoundment.

It is this symbolic design characteristic that I hope those who live near and oppose the proposed child-care home will consider as theSept. 16 and 23 dates for hearings on a rezoning request for the proposed site near.

I note this because during some community meetings more than a year ago when the project for 26 acres at the corner ofHarford and Reckord roads was first unveiled, some area residents made it clear that they'd prefer the project if it somehow walled the children in, away from their streets and homes and backyards.

For some reason these opponents, who have now turned their arguments to worries about well-water pressure and school overcrowding problems, believe the children who will be sheltered at the home will be juvenile criminals.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The children will be crime victims.

The young children who will be brought to the shelter will be in desperate need of a sense of freedom and openness. Theirs is a world filled with the terrifying sheer walls erected in the psyche and soul when a child is physically, emotionally or sexually abused by an adult.

Instead of gates and walls, these children are in need of a dinner table where some adult won't take a swipe at their heads for not eating, a bed where they won't be taken advantage of and adults in whom they can confide their fears, rather than fear.

Tom Wimbrow, the former principal at Southampton Middle Schooland now the development director for the Baltimore-based Board of Child Care, says the organization started in 1874 with the mission of caring for orphans. After World War II, orphaned children became rare.A new trend emerged which changed the mission, he notes.

"Some people in this field call these abused children the 'orphans of the living.' To my mind, this is a far worse, a darker trend in society thanthe child orphaned by death," says Wimbrow.

If any of the opponents of the project were an "orphan of the living," say, 5 years old and undergoing the torment of being beaten up by an adult on a routine basis, they may have a different view of the proposal.

Instead of finding arguments against the project, they'd espouse reasons to get it up and going as quickly as possible.

It's interesting to me that when a Frito-Lay or Merry-Go-Round announces it has picked Harford for a new project, the doors are flung wide open. The project is put on the fast track for quick zoning and permit approval. Accolades from residents and the elected cascade over one another.

But when a priest in Edgewood says he's going to start a shelter for the homelessor a church-affiliated agency says it wants to start a shelter for abused children, there is no such red carpet. We seem to have only thecacophony of dissent.

Establishing a shelter for abused children seems a far more worthy and compelling project for the red carpet than some corporate giant that sells snack food or baggy pants to teens.

The vision for the home is that it would shelter abused children,ages 2 through 12, taken for protection from Harford homes. They would have around-the-clock supervision, live a normal daily structure that would include going to school and recreational activities and offer therapy sessions to help their recovery and possible return to their parents and families.

The Board of Child Care, a private non-profit group affiliated with the United Methodist Church, does have a legal hurdle to clear. It must convince a zoning hearing examiner thismonth that the site the board has owned since 1974 qualifies for a zoning exemption. The exemption is needed because the land is zoned for agriculture.

To be fair, there really isn't any similar development in the area, such as an apartment building. But the area no longer has strong ties to agriculture. There are more homes than farms there. If the hearing examiner decides that the project doesn't meet thequalifications for an exemption, then the state and county government should step in and help the group locate a site that would cost little or nothing and where zoning issues wouldn't be an issue.

Foster-care workers in the Harford County Department of Social Services say the need for such a facility in the county is severe. There isn't any such shelter for young children in Harford. There are about 260 abused Harford children currently in protective foster home settings.

Carolyn McQuiston, a social worker who assists with placing abused children in group homes, says young children removed from Harford homes now must be taken to a shelter near Cockeysville in Baltimore County or sometimes all the way into the inner city.

Common sense would dictate that Harford County have its own emergency shelter for abused young children.

Why? Simply because the high-water mark of a community is the depth of its willingness to assist those among us who are in the trouble of their lives.

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