Facilities for disabled, troubled unwelcome

Laws give residents little power to stop homes from opening

February 22, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

In Catonsville, homeowners protested when they learned of plans to open a group home for women recovering from drug addiction. Woodlawn residents complained after disabled clients in group homes vandalized the neighborhood. And in Pasadena, residents who had welcomed a home for troubled girls applauded when it closed after years of conflict.

Such clashes have erupted throughout the region, as state officials move to place troubled children and adults -- including criminal offenders -- in group homes.

Statewide, about 2,700 such homes serve people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities -- and their numbers are growing.

Although most disputes have arisen in older, less affluent suburbs where group homes are apt to locate, even prestigious areas such as Worthington Valley in Baltimore County are not immune. Residents there recently launched an all-out battle to stop the opening of a group home for severely disturbed teen-age boys who have committed crimes.

"Many of us feel that the key issue is the right to have our community the way we want it," said Neil Adleberg, a Worthington Valley resident.

But federal law makes it almost impossible for communities or local governments to stop group homes from opening or to regulate where they operate.

"This is a situation where Big Brother with social engineering has pre-empted the local authority," said Baltimore County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican whose district includes Worthington Valley. "My frustration is, I'm totally out of the loop."

But those charged with caring for the disabled argue that children and adults in treatment programs are entitled to live in the least restrictive environment possible. They say group homes -- generally with fewer than eight people -- provide the kind of care institutions cannot, offering intense counseling in a home-like environment.

With juvenile delinquents, the homes have the added benefit of allowing them to see a normal community where residents go to work each day, take care of their property and play with their children, said Walter G. R. Wirsching, an assistant secretary at the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice.

"We're trying to teach them to live in communities and be productive in communities," he said. "We want the kids to look into the faces of the communities that may have been their victims."

Starting in the late 1970s, Maryland began bringing home children who had been in out-of-state treatment programs. That movement accelerated with a 1992 law requiring jurisdictions to care for children in state if possible, leading to an increase in the number of group homes and specialized foster care programs.

"No community really wants a group home," said Bruce Bertell, founder of Family Advocacy Services, which is seeking to open the home for severely troubled teen-age boys in Worthington Valley. "The state is asking to bring the kids back, but what are you supposed to do? If you can't open up group homes, then you're stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Former State Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican who sponsored the legislation bringing children back to Maryland, said the state was spending millions of dollars to treat children out of state.

But his aim was not just to save money, he said. "Another goal was to bring those kids back to be close to their families. I think we've done the right thing."

While treating children in state might save money, group homes are not necessarily less expensive than institutional care, state officials say.

The median annual cost to care for a child in a small group home is $48,000 but can go as high as $100,000. By comparison, it costs the state $46,000 a year to care for a child at the state's Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill.

While Maryland has 169 homes for juveniles and more than 2,500 for adults, demand for such homes is greater than the supply, state officials say.

But when communities discover a home operating or about to open in their neighborhood, they often are outraged. They fear not only that the home's residents will harm them and damage their properties, but that the presence of these businesses will lower property values.

Despite residents' fears, experts say no statistics exist to show that crime increases or that property values decline in neighborhoods with group homes.

"It's a mistake to assume that by having a facility in a community, it is less likely to be safe," said David Altschuler, a professor of sociology and a principal research scientist at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies, who focuses on juvenile justice reform and youth crime.

Altschuler argues that communities will be safer in the long run by accepting group homes that help rehabilitate children, rather than face a possible alternative of angry, dysfunctional juveniles who turn into adult criminals.

"They are going to be around in most cases," Altschuler said. "The question is what can we do so they're not committing crimes."

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