Facilities for disabled, troubled unwelcome; Laws give residents little power to stop homes from opening


In Catonsville, homeowners protested when they learned of plans to open a group home for women recovering from drug addiction. Woodlawn residents complained after disabled clients in group homes vandalized the neighborhood. And in Pasadena, residents who had welcomed a home for troubled girls applauded when it closed after years of conflict.

Such clashes have erupted throughout the region, as state officials move to place troubled children and adults -- including criminal offenders -- in group homes.

Statewide, about 2,700 such homes serve people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities -- and their numbers are growing.

Although most disputes have arisen in older, less affluent suburbs where group homes are apt to locate, even prestigious areas such as Worthington Valley in Baltimore County are not immune. Residents there recently launched an all-out battle to stop the opening of a group home for severely disturbed teen-age boys who have committed crimes.

"Many of us feel that the key issue is the right to have our community the way we want it," said Neil Adleberg, a Worthington Valley resident.

But federal law makes it almost impossible for communities or local governments to stop group homes from opening or to regulate where they operate.

"This is a situation where Big Brother with social engineering has pre-empted the local authority," said Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican whose district includes Worthington Valley. "My frustration is, I'm totally out of the loop."

But those charged with caring for the disabled argue that children and adults in treatment programs are entitled to live in the least restrictive environment possible. They say group homes -- generally with fewer than eight people -- provide the kind of care institutions cannot, offering intense counseling in a home-like environment.

With juvenile delinquents, the homes have the added benefit of allowing them to see a normal community where residents go to work each day, take care of their property and play with their children, said Walter G. R. Wirsching, an assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice.

"We're trying to teach them to live in communities and be productive in communities," he said. "We want the kids to look into the faces of the communities that may have been their victims."

Starting in the late 1970s, Maryland began bringing home children who had been in out-of-state treatment programs. That movement accelerated with a 1992 law requiring jurisdictions to care for children in state if possible, leading to an increase in the number of group homes and specialized foster care programs.

"No community really wants a group home," said Bruce Bertell, founder of Family Advocacy Services, which is seeking to open the home for severely troubled teen-age boys in Worthington Valley. "The state is asking to bring the kids back, but what are you supposed to do? If you can't open up group homes, then you're stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Former State Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican who sponsored the legislation bringing children back to Maryland, said the state was spending millions of dollars to treat children out of state.

But his aim was not just to save money, he said. "Another goal was to bring those kids back to be close to their families. I think we've done the right thing."

While treating children in state might save money, group homes are not necessarily less expensive than institutional care, state officials say.

The median annual cost to care for a child in a small group home is $48,000 but can go as high as $100,000. By comparison, it costs the state $46,000 a year to care for a child at the state's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill.

While Maryland has 169 homes for juveniles and more than 2,500 for adults, demand for such homes is greater than the supply, state officials say.

But when communities discover a home operating or about to open in their neighborhood, they often are outraged. They fear not only that the home's residents will harm them and damage their properties, but that the presence of these businesses will lower property values.

Despite residents' fears, experts say no statistics exist to show that crime increases or that property values decline in neighborhoods with group homes.

"It's a mistake to assume that by having a facility in a community, it is less likely to be safe," said David Altschuler, a professor of sociology and a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, who focuses on juvenile justice reform and youth crime.

Altschuler argues that communities will be safer in the long run by accepting group homes that help rehabilitate children, rather than face a possible alternative of angry, dysfunctional juveniles who turn into adult criminals.

"They are going to be around in most cases," Altschuler said. "The question is what can we do so they're not committing crimes."

While most group homes operate peacefully in their neighborhoods, enough problems have occurred to make residents wary. In Pasadena, residents of the Woodholme community at first welcomed a group home for runaway teen-age girls, said community association president Paul Higgins.

"It was felt that if there was a good curriculum, you wouldn't have any problems," he said.

But after several years, residents grew fed up with the police and fire calls to the group home, the taunts by the girls and the lack of supervision.

When the neighbors went to the state with their complaints, the home closed. Higgins said residents likely would oppose any other group home moving into their neighborhood.

"It was a very tough issue bringing it to a close," Higgins said. "We put up with a lot."

Woodlawn residents battled a home for years when one mentally retarded resident kept throwing rocks and other debris onto their properties. The man was moved after neighbors complained to police and state authorities.

In another case, a home in Woodlawn was closed after an occupant harassed neighbors and broke a porch light.

William Obriecht, vice president of the Liberty Road Community Council, said the issue isn't only fear of the group homes' residents, but the impact such businesses have on a community, especially when they are clustered in a neighborhood.

"Instead of a neighbor concerned about the neighborhood, you have a group of employees and an owner who sees it as a place to make money," Obriecht said.

On rare occasions, neighborhoods are able to stop a group home from opening. In Catonsville, residents helped defeat the plan for a home for women recovering from drug addictions.

More often the community's opposition is in vain. Pikesville residents protested vehemently when Family Advocacy Services sent announcements of the planned opening of a group home for troubled adolescent boys.

But since the home opened in June problems have been relatively minor.

"I feel better right now, but I'm still uneasy," said Art Ciker, who lives near the home.

Sylvia Maslan decided not to wait to see if trouble arises. She and her husband put their house up for sale, in part because of the group home. They are moving into an apartment.

"You go and buy, and they stick one of these group homes in your neighborhood, and you have no say," she said. "It doesn't seem fair for them to move this group home into this community."

Boozer agreed that communities have rights that should be taken into consideration.

"There is a delicate balance of where you place these disturbed children," he said. "It's working together is what it's all about."

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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