Citizens oppose group home

Randallstown area mobilizes against proposed teen facility

`A very fluid situation'

February 16, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien and Dail Willis | Dennis O'Brien and Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Randallstown-area residents marshaled their own campaign yesterday against a proposal for a group home for juvenile offenders, saying that the home should not be placed there simply because it is unwanted in well-to-do Worthington Valley.

"It appears to me that it's as if our children are somehow less precious than the children of Worthington Valley, which just isn't true and isn't fair," said Lisa Cohen, a Randallstown mother of four who is active with Deer Park Elementary School PTA. "If people can buy the people out, it just moves the problem to some other neighborhood."

Cohen and other residents met in Annapolis yesterday with Democratic Sen. Paula C. Hollinger and state juvenile justice officials about the plan to put the home for eight emotionally disturbed teen-age boys in a half-million-dollar Colonial home at Gent Road and Knox Avenue in Worthington Valley.

"We didn't solve anything," said Hollinger, who represents both areas. "But we're looking at alternatives." Among those were Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville and other state sites that may be underused.

"This is still a very fluid situation," said Bruce E. Bertell, owner of Family Advocacy Services Inc., which has applied for a state license to operate the group home for the teen-agers, who have committed such crimes as burglary or car theft.

Faced with intense opposition from Worthington Valley residents, Bertell said last week he is willing to consider a 10-acre site on Old Court Road near Granite and Randallstown, if state funds can be found to help with the $700,000 to $1 million cost of buying the site and building on it.

Bertell, who also attended yesterday's meeting in Annapolis, said that despite a threatened lawsuit by a Worthington Valley resident, he plans to continue pushing to license the group home in that area. Family Advocacy operates one such group home in Pikesville.

"Nobody is really interested in [having] group homes, and I'm not sure where this is going," Bertell said after yesterday's meeting.

The growing controversy is the latest dispute in Baltimore County and across the state underscoring the difficulty of dealing with the needs of juvenile delinquents in the midst of community opposition. Typically, such group homes have been concentrated in less affluent neighborhoods such as Woodlawn and Randallstown.

William Obriecht, a Woodlawn community activist and first vice president of Liberty Road Community Council, said yesterday that the Woodlawn corridor has one of the highest concentrations of group homes in the state.

Public money

"If it's public money that's financing these facilities, then everybody should have their fair share of them, just like they should have their share of parks and libraries," Obriecht said.

Obriecht said no evidence exists to show the effects that group homes for juvenile offenders have on a community's crime rate. But the lack of evidence has many people skeptical, he said.

"The jury is still out on the impact on these homes in a community, but until we get solid data, we should have a fair-share policy," he said.

Bill Bralove, the president of Renew, a Randallstown-based umbrella community organization of 3,000 members, said yesterday that he was frustrated by a lack of information provided to the area.

"We don't know what the whole thing is about yet," Bralove said. "We're not panicking, but we're just trying to get information."

Obriecht said that the Liberty Road corridor has become a target for many group homes because houses in the community are reasonably priced and the area has a fair amount of turnover among residents.

Meeting at library

"The more turnover, the more opportunity there is to open a group home without opposition, because people are less likely to know their neighbor," he said.

Cohen, of Randallstown, said when a group home for youth offenders opened off Winans Road in Randallstown last summer, a community meeting at the Pikesville Library failed to attract any public officials.

"I don't think anyone wants to deny the children the help they need," she said, "but you shouldn't put it in a community that has more than its share of these facilities."

Bralove said that the Woodlawn-Liberty Road corridor has become a target for those wanting to set up other unwanted facilities, such as methadone clinics and even churches that residents believe could exacerbate traffic problems.

"That area has been fighting churches, synagogues, group homes. This has literally become the dumping ground of Baltimore County," he said.

Aware of sentiments

County officials said that they have heard those sentiments and would work to reverse that trend.

County Council Chairman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Democrat who represents the Pikesville-Liberty Road corridor, said that he feels strongly that state officials should require a more even distribution of group homes in Maryland and allow juvenile offenders to be sent to homes out of state.

"There's so many, it's gotten out of hand," he said.

But he said county officials can do little about Bertell's planned group home.

"County zoning codes are overridden by the state, and only the state has regulatory authority," he said. "We have no local hammer over them."

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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