Group homes as neighbors Suburban battles: These rehabilitation facilities work best in communities.

October 02, 1997

THE FUROR OVER group homes, which has flared most recently in Baltimore County's Loch Raven and Anne Arundel County's Pasadena, is not difficult to understand. "Families" of the mentally ill, the disabled, recovering alcoholics and troubled youths do not fit the suburban dream.

Yet these groups have a legal right to live alongside everyone else. We do not, in most cases, have a say over their right to move in, any more than we have veto power over any other neighbor. Such power breeds discrimination. Federal law forbids In Loch Raven, Baltimore County Councilman Douglas B. Riley and U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. say they oppose plans for two facilities, each with three mentally ill persons, because they don't feel such people belong in townhouses. Their feelings contradict fair-housing law. There is also animosity in Howard County over group homes for senior citizens.

Under state law, a group home with up to three clients is the same as any family residence, except most require a state license. No hearings are required and the provider does not have to notify the community, though that is a wise move. The same applies to homes with four to nine people, though these may be restricted to multi-family zones. These are good laws; they prevent prejudice and fear from ostracizing people.

Most of us have an interest in new neighbors. Operators of group homes should expect that neighbors might want to know their track records in running other facilities, and their plans for staffing and supervision.

But privacy laws forbid them from offering information about clients, such as whether a person has ever been convicted of a crime.

Nor does it appear possible to supply a government registry of group homes (although such a listing might help prevent clustering too many homes, which would thwart the goal of blending clients into the mainstream).

Most group homes are good neighbors. Rehabilitation is aided by proximity to community and family. Any serious problems with these homes can be handled with the agency, the licensing agency or the police. Yes, group homes can have problems with noise, yard care and the like. But then, the same could be true of anyone who moves next door.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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