Some see threat in client behavior


September 11, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Jake France said the final straw was a 2-by-4 piece of lumber -- the one the deaf man used to beat on the corner of the new house on Mr. France's property.

"For all I knew, he could have turned around and started beating on me," said Mr. France, 62, who chased the man off his property, away from the house he was finishing for his sister.

The man with the 2-by-4 lives in a group home for the deaf on Clifton Avenue in the Woodlawn section of Baltimore County, just over the city line. Six other developmentally disabled deaf men ,, live in the home, which is run by the Family Service Foundation, a non-profit corporation under contract to Maryland's Developmental Disabilities Administration.

Mr. France lives just across the street from the home, which residents of this quiet neighborhood say has disrupted their tranquillity ever since opening in July of last year.

Foundation officials concede that there have been problems, but they say homes like these are the only way their clients can learn to function in society after years of living in restrictive institutions.

"I've got nothing against these people," said Mr. France, who is retired from the county sheriff's office. "I feel sorry for them. I'll do anything I can to help people who are in a situation like that.

"Really we just have trouble with a couple of them, one in particular," he said, the man who wielded the two-by-four.

"He shouldn't be in a setting like this. It's just wrong for him," Mr. France said. "He should be somewhere with a lot of space, where the houses aren't so close together. It's obvious he's got other problems besides being deaf."

Eleanor Macdonald, program director for the Family Service Foundation, said she recognizes the problems and has discussed them with the neighbors.

She said the deaf men's disruptive behavior is the result of anger and frustration that built up over the years while living at the state's Rosewood Center -- a setting not equipped to deal with their handicap. The man in question, who is 65, spent 10 years at Rosewood.

"They have never been in an environment where people knew sign language. They were forced to get along in a hearing world," she said. "We are trying to teach them sign language now so that they do not have to use behavior to express themselves.

"The neighbors do have their rights. We recognize that. . . . They pTC need to recognize that the men in the home also have certain rights."

She said the staff is trying to teach the men that their newfound personal freedom doesn't allow them to violate the rights of others. She said the staff is also making special efforts to keep the 65-year-old on the home's grounds. She said the man has begun learning signs and his behavior is improving as he responds to the staff.

"The only way these clients are going to learn appropriate behavior is out in a community setting," she said. "If we put them back in an institution, they will never learn."

Recently, Kevin Scott, the Woodlawn police district community relations officer, joined Ms. Macdonald during a meeting with Mr. France.

"I think the staff needs to have a little more control over their clients whenever they are outside, even in their back yard," said Officer Scott, whose department has been called into the area several times.

Though neighbors speak with what seems to be a genuine affection for the staff and residents of the home -- they seem to know them all by name -- they also talk as if their patience is about used up.

They complain of noise from loud radios -- "I guess they feel the vibrations of the music," Mr. France said -- parking problems and the disruptions caused when disputes arise between the staff and the home's residents.

Two houses away from the home, Thomas Getzendanner, 75, said he doesn't mind when one of the men stops by to watch him in his garage workshop.

"I could be one of those fellows," said Mr. Getzendanner, who also has had problems with the 65-year-old man who wielded the "I chased that one off when he started going through my truck."

Ellen Swain, Mr. France's 62-year-old sister, who is living next door to the home while her new house is being finished, said she has collected boxes of stones and other garbage thrown into her yard.

Frances Estes, 68, whose house on Hutton Street backs up to the group home, also removes litter that residents have thrown into her yard, including a 19-inch pipe.

"It could have hit me on the head," she said. "I pray for these people every day. I know that if things were different, my son could be one of them."

Mr. France pointed to a hole in back of the home. A window used to be there, but one of the deaf men tore it out.

"A toilet tank and seat came out after it," he said. "It could have come right over in my sister's yard and hit her if she had been standing out here."

Ms. Macdonald said the 65-year-old who wielded the 2-by-4 cannot be moved to any of the other four group homes operated by Family Service Foundation -- as the neighbors have requested -- because those houses serve clients who are deaf and blind.

According to Ms. Macdonald, four staff members are in the home before the clients leave for school around 9 a.m. When they return at 3 p.m., six staff members are present and two remain overnight.

Before the home opened last year, Ms. Macdonald visited every house in the neighborhood to explain what was happening. She knocked on doors and left letters if no one was home.

"She told me a group of deaf people were moving into this house," Ms. Estes said. "She said it would be an asset to the community. I don't think it's worked out that way."

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