Group homes raise doubts Neighbors' wrath has led to closing of some in suburbs

September 21, 1997|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

When the girls came to Pasadena eight years ago as residents of a new group home for troubled, abused and neglected teens, they were welcomed, which is rare in the world of group homes.

And their home was lavishly funded: The state budgeted $64,590 a year per resident, almost $20,000 more than the average for a state home, and the second-highest among Maryland's 164 homes for troubled youths.

Despite that, the home for girls run by the Martin Pollak Project, a nonprofit agency based in Baltimore, is closing to cheers from the same neighbors who had begun by throwing a welcoming pool party for the teens.

Group homes have met similar fates in recent years in Woodlawn, Towson and Harford County, victims of the wrath of neighbors who wanted the homes anywhere but in their back yards.

For the first time, however, state officials and advocates for troubled youths are publicly wondering whether the problem with the homes in the suburbs goes beyond problems with neighbors and reflects instead major defects in how the state supervises its homes, and whether it is doling out funds without knowing what it is getting in return.

"The state looks at how many bathrooms and sinks a place has and all sorts of ridiculous things," said Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland Law School professor and a founder of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth. "They don't look at the outcomes, what goes on in the house and the kids. We're spending money without ever knowing what we're getting for it, and we're going to pay for it in the end."

The organizers of the Pasadena group home blame the problems on neighbors who they say are biased against the residents, most of whom are black. However, police records show 124 emergency calls from the home during the past three years for incidents including assault, battery and, once, rape. Neighbors said the girls hurled rocks, threatened them and ran wild.

John Walker, a licensing specialist with the state Department of Human Resources, threw up his arms when told of the police records this month. Usually, he declines to talk about internal problems.

Chief among those problems is overwork. He and three staff members must review 180 contracts for group homes and other youth programs. Each contract includes 29 itemized cost lists. They also must visit each home annually, review each child's history and monitor compliance with dozens of state housing requirements.

To try to spot troubling trends -- for example, that the Martin Pollak agency spent $9,433 on business travel last year for its two group homes and $606 on staff training -- is difficult, Walker and advocates for youths said.

"We need a line-item review of budgets," Walker said. "We really do, but we simply don't have that kind of staff. We make sure programs are in compliance, but we don't look at quality, at whether they are doing a good job. We need better indicators of what we're buying."

Records show that the state licensed the Martin Pollak home for girls and a nearby home for boys in Pasadena at a hefty price per child, in part because the Martin Pollak home wrote in its application that it could handle suicidal and assaultive teens, sex offenders and delinquents.

Yet, until neighbors threatened to sue this year, only the cook and a counselor could be found at any given time to deal with eight girls ages 12 to 18, state documents show. Though each child was assigned a caseworker and an outside therapist, only one part-time supervisor with credentials for dealing with troubled youths worked at the home, according to an independent audit of the agency's salaries last year.

Industry observers say the pay and training are so bad at many group homes that it is difficult to hire high-quality employees, and state documents show turnover at these facilities is high.

Martin Pollak counselors are not highly paid, and most of those employed during the past eight years have had no education beyond high school.

"We started wondering why these children were being handcuffed and transported in the back of police cars," said neighbor Paul Higgins, president of the area's Woodholme Community Association. "Just the number of missing kids. What kind of control did they have over the facility? We thought there's something wrong here."

Irene Wisch, who lives next door to the group home, remembers when "one time, two of the girls got into a fight in the front yard. They were ripping each other's clothes off. The counselor finally came out and tried to break it up, but the girls turned on her. The counselor was calling out to me to call the police. I ran in the house and called. They broke the counselor's arm."

Industry experts blame the state for doling out lucrative contracts regardless of a program's success rate. Successful homes are generally defined as those that can return children to their families or foster care or release them to independent living after a year.

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