New apartments will help troubled families reunite

May 01, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

Construction workers are laying floors, shoring up beams and installing insulation in an old Army barracks and an old storage building at Fort Meade.

Come July, the old military buildings will begin a new life as apartments for families seeking a fresh start.

The six apartments are part of a program that will reunite families whose members have been separated, said Peter O'Grady, director of Sarah's House, a shelter at Fort Meade that aids homeless people and others facing crises.

Like the other programs at Sarah's House, the family reunification program is a partnership of the Defense Department, Fort Meade, the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services and Catholic Charities.

Details of the program are still being worked out, said Marjorie Bennett, special programs manager for the county Department of Social Services and project director for Sarah's House.

Families may be asked to pay some form of fee, but it would be less than the typical rent for such an apartment. The buildings will have two two-bedroom and four three-bedroom apartments.

Mr. O'Grady is hoping the program can help families in two ways.

First, children who have been temporarily placed in foster care may be reunited with their parents in the supportive atmosphere of subsidized housing with on-site social workers and training opportunities.

He also hopes the apartments will allow the Sarah's House staff to work with families that are in danger of falling apart.

"The issue is, can we do something before the kids go into foster care," Mr. O'Grady says.

He says many of the families on the verge of splitting up have been driven to that point through no fault of their own.

A family on the financial edge may be one illness or one layoff away from losing its home or seeing the children placed in foster care.

Also, he says, the strain of trying to find money for food, rent, medical care and child care may contribute to abuse or neglect.

Homelessness forces foster care on many families, says Robin Scott, program associate with the Children's Defense Fund, a national advocacy group for children.

She says a study of children in foster care in Maryland between November 1991 and April 1992 showed that one of eight children in foster care in Prince George's County could have been returned to their families if suitable, affordable housing had been available.

In the new Sarah's House program, a clinical social worker will be available to assist the families. Parents will be offered help with financial management, job training and reading and writing.

lTC Mr. O'Grady says the program could allow some Anne Arundel families to have their first nonthreatening relationship with social workers instead of them seeing social workers as judgmental people who can take away their children.

Program administrators expect renovation of the two buildings to be completed in June.

The Defense Department is paying $523,000 to convert the buildings, which now are used as office and storage space, Mr. O'Grady says. The department is donating the buildings to the county with the condition that they can be reclaimed in a national emergency.

Federal community development block grants are expected to supply $30,000 to furnish the apartments and $119,000 for the program's operating expenses during its first year.

The sound of hammers and saws at Sarah's House may soon fade. The current expansion is likely to be the shelter's last, Mr. O'Grady says, because the supply of nearby unused Army buildings suitable for renovation has been exhausted.

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