Family key to program for troubled youths

For-profit company uses no restraints at treatment homes

February 18, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Even his most bitter opponents admit it: Bruce Bertell is a true believer.

Bertell's passion to help the kids that no one else wants has been the driving force behind a therapeutic network, called Family Advocacy Services Inc., that on any given day is treating 270 kids from the Washington suburbs to northern Baltimore County.

It has also put him in the middle of a firestorm of opposition in the well-to-do Worthington Valley, where Bertell wants to put eight emotionally disturbed juvenile offenders in a sprawling half-million-dollar home.

"We're just trying to help kids finish growing up," Bertell says. "I don't believe in institutional care. The family is the basic unit in this and most other cultures. The quicker you get them toward their own families, the better."

To that end, the 47-year-old clinical social worker developed a treatment program that moves troubled children through a series of therapeutic, homelike environments toward normal family life. At its most structured end is a group home where emotionally disturbed children -- some of whom have committed serious crimes -- are housed while staff members evaluate them and begin treatment. Bertell's group homes are not barred, fenced or gated, but residents are closely supervised, he says.

The lack of physical restraints is an important element in his program, Bertell says. But it also creates fear among Worthington Valley residents who say their children won't be able to play outside alone.

Such fears, Bertell said, virtually disappeared after he opened a similar facility in Pikesville in June. "A year after you're there, it's not an issue any more," he says.

Residents near the Pikesville group home say that problems have been few.

"Much of it is the idea," said Val Woody, who has lived in the area for a decade with her husband and two sons. "It's not as bad as we feared."

When she and her husband had minor complaints -- trash in the area, unauthorized use of a basketball hoop -- the Family Advocacy staff acted quickly, she said.

Bertell says that since the Pikesville home opened, officers have gone to the house six times for minor events -- an account confirmed by Baltimore County police. He said three calls were about runaways, one was a false alarm, one a sick child who called 911 and the sixth was a child who became agitated and had to be restrained. Police have received no calls from neighbors, he said.

The program is based on a family-like setting that is impossible to achieve in any institution, Bertell says. His conviction that the setting is the best environment for children is based on two decades of clinical work and his own childhood. His father died when he was very young, he says, and his mother ran a children's clothing store on Long Island to support herself and her two sons.

When he was 18, he met a boy who lived in a "welfare motel" (an institution eradicated in the 1960s by state assistance programs) and it struck him: Had his mother not worked so hard, he could have been living in a welfare motel, too.

"I always considered myself one step ahead of those kids," he says. "The biggest deal with my mother was education. She said, `That's your ticket.' I could always identify with the underachievers."

After graduating from Adelphi College in New York, Bertell began to teach and gravitated toward the "kids in the basement," as he describes them -- the kids in special education. From there, he decided to get a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

As he began to work with seriously emotionally disturbed children referred from the Department of Juvenile Justice, a treatment model began to take shape in his mind.

"What if you take the best of foster care treatment and the best of residential treatment?" is how he remembers it. In 1988, he became the first for-profit vendor the state used for juvenile treatment services.

"I went to DJJ and said, `Would you give me 12 of your roughest kids and let me see if I can keep them in the community?' And 12 became 24," he says -- and Family Advocacy grew rapidly, ultimately becoming a multimillion-dollar company with 200 employees.

"He is very, very dedicated to improving this society," says Wal- ter G. R. Wirsching, an assistant secretary in the DJJ. "In an age with few ideals, this is a guy who still believes in them."

Bertell built a school on Baltimore County's west side and named it the Florence Bertell Academy after his mother; a school in Prince George's County followed. He trained a network of foster parents in Virginia and Maryland. He opened the group home in Pikesville.

And when he needed a second group home, he leased a Worthington Valley house at Knox Avenue and Gent Road for $3,200 a month. Bertell says he anticipated resistance, but was unprepared for the fury that has ensued.

Community meetings have taken on a warlike tone, with Bertell characterized as "the enemy." Residents are threatening legal action. But even the most vocal opponents admit that Bertell's convictions are deep.

"He's a true believer," says Scott Supplee, a doctor who has organized the community resistance.

Bertell says he will not give up because his mission is too important.

"At the end of the day," he says, "if you run a good program and you supervise your kids, you just kind of melt into the fabric of the community."

Sun staff writer Liz Atwood contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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