Disturbed teens, distressed neighbors; Half-million-dollar house for offenders

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A plan to put a group home for emotionally disturbed offenders in Baltimore County's well-to-do Worthington Valley has provoked a blitzkrieg of opposition from outraged residents -- and local officials see no way to block it.

As many as eight teen-age boys who have committed crimes ranging from car theft to breaking and entering would live in the sprawling, half-million dollar Colonial home not far from the Hunt Cup steeplechase.

Family Advocacy Services, a private agency that operates several juvenile treatment facilities for the state in Baltimore County, signed a one-year lease on the house in November for $3,200 a month.

"People are scared and I appreciate that," said Bruce Bertell, a clinical social worker who is the chief executive officer of Family Advocacy Services. "This is every fear that a parent has -- I'm a parent, too. I know what these parents are feeling."

Angry neighborhood residents, mobilizing furiously for a battle that could end up in court, met last night.

"They don't belong in this community, and everyone in this room knows it," Dr. Scott Supplee, a physician who lives next door to the house, told the more than 200 people gathered at Grace Falls Road United Methodist Church.

Earlier yesterday, Steven K. Fedder, a lawyer who has a 4-year-old son and an infant daughter, said: "Just about everybody has a swing set, everybody has children, and we let our kids roam freely around the neighborhood -- but we won't be able to do that anymore if this goes through."

The Worthington Valley dispute is the latest in a series of controversies in Baltimore County and across the state pitting the interests of homeowners and communities against the needs of juvenile delinquents.

"It doesn't matter if your house costs $3 million or $30,000, you don't want these kids in your neighborhood," said Bob Kannenberg, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, the state agency responsible for licensing the group home at Gent Road and Knox Avenue.

Federal housing laws could make it impossible to block the group home by using local zoning ordinances, covenants and community restrictions, according to state and county officials.

Juvenile justice workers and Bertell say such community-based treatment is essential to rehabilitate teen-agers so emotionally damaged that they cannot function in institutional settings like the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill.

Boys ages 13 to 17 will receive intense counseling while living at the house and attending a Family Advocacy-run school elsewhere in the county. With proper management, advocates say, such community-based treatment poses little or no threat.

When Family Advocacy opened a similar home in Pikesville last year there was a similar outcry, Bertell said. But police have gone to the facility only twice since it opened, he said: once for a sick child who mistakenly called 911 and once for a juvenile reported missing during a trip to the Inner Harbor.

"I'm not dealing with rapists and murderers," Bertell said. "These kids have a lot of behavior problems."

Opponents have flooded state, local and federal officials with pleas for help, citing fears about their children and concern about property values.

"One parent said that she didn't want a law named after her child, like Megan's law," said Paula Houck, an aide to County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, referring to a federal statute named after a New Jersey child killed by a neighborhood sex offender. The law requires that residents be notified when a sex offender moves into a neighborhood.

Fedder, who lives down the street from the house, faxed a letter yesterday to Baltimore County officials asking them to block the group home because the neighborhood is zoned for single-family homes and other uses, not including group homes licensed by the state's Department of Juvenile Justice.

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits the use of zoning codes to discriminate against group homes. But Fedder said the courts have upheld the use of zoning codes to regulate group homes so long as the codes are not discriminatory. He said the group home would violate covenants.

Arnold Jablon, director of the county Department of Permits and Development Management, said yesterday that he wanted to consult with the county attorney before acting on Fedder's request.

Fedder said that if county zoning officials deny his request, he will go to court to block the group home.

Angry residents have called County Council members, the county executive, Maryland delegates, congressional representatives and county zoning officials. They lodged so many protests this week that at least four employees with the Department of Juvenile Justice have had their voice mail jammed.

"The community is very, very upset by this," said Karl Aumann, district director for Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. "It's almost being presented as as a fait accompli. I think there's a real fairness issue here."

Ruppersberger said yesterday that the county cannot use its land-use policies to block group homes.

"Maybe this whole plan isn't as bad as it sounds, but the lack of communication is a real problem," Ruppersberger said yesterday. "The most important thing is for the neighborhood to get all the facts and the data, and right now the information just isn't getting out."

"The thing that I find distressing is that there's been no effort to inform the community about what's going on," said state Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Bertell said that he had planned to get the license from the Department of Juvenile Justice and then approach the community about the house. But word spread rapidly before he could do that.

"It got out of control so fast," he said.

Hollinger said she plans to set up a meeting with Juvenile Justice officials, community leaders and Family Advocacy Services. If Family Advocacy meets Maryland licensing requirements, the state cannot deny the license because of community opposition, Hollinger and others said.

Walter G. R. Wirsching, assistant secretary for program services at the Department of Juvenile Justice, said yesterday that he would meet with residents to discuss their concerns but said his agency must focus on helping juveniles.

"We haven't made the decision as a society that we're going to institutionalize for life people who have problems," he said.

While the department and the home's operator must consider public safety, there are other issues. The Gent Road site is large enough to accommodate the youths without crowding, has spacious grounds and offers a peaceful environment that most of them have never had.

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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