Group home battles not based in fact

Community opposition: Fear that accompanies plans is more fierce than benign record deserves.

April 25, 1999

RESIDENTS OF Worthington Valley had something that other area neighborhoods opposed to plans for group homes did not: enough wealth to buy the home to keep out the operator.

The money, however, didn't buy a richer understanding of the need for group homes to operate in residential settings.

Or of the fact that scant evidence supports the assumption that group homes devalue nearby properties.

Or of the federal law that forbids discrimination against them, just as it outlaws other forms of housing discrimination based on race or ethnicity that society more readily accepts as wrong.

Vague fears about group homes -- that teen delinquents will be thieves, that the mentally ill will become violent, that recovering substance abusers will attract drug dealers, that senior citizens with medical emergencies will cause streets to jam with ambulances -- are overblown.

Police report no increase in crime in neighborhoods with group homes. Groups fighting for control over where these homes locate, such as the National League of Cities, acknowledge the lack of data proving negative impact.

That's not to dismiss all concern. Some group homes do shelter youngsters convicted of serious crimes, who have worked their way out of imprisonment to further rehabilitation in a supervised home.

The Worthington home was to receive some of these children. But they constitute less than 1 percent of the population in group homes.

And, there's the larger point: These youths are striving to -- indeed, they must -- work their way back into mainstream society. They have not been sentenced to life imprisonment.

Any neighbor moving to a community could wreak havoc and residents would have less recourse than with group homes, run by state-licensed private operators.

License revoked

Last winter, the Licensing and Certification Administration of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene revoked its first license in a decade.

Residential Care Network of Pikesville, which operated four group homes for the developmentally disabled in Baltimore County, was accused of denying residents food and keeping them shoeless to prevent them from running away.

The agency unsuccessfully sought changes for a year, said Carol Benner, director of licensing and certification. The agency threatened to decertify two other operators before they corrected violations, she said.

An increase in inspectors, from 30 to 40, is an encouraging sign that the state will become a more vigilant monitor. A single revocation in 10 years gives pause, however. It suggests either that all contractors are functioning well or that the state has been slow to penalize substandard ones. The agency is already under fire from federal inspectors for alleged laxity in its oversight of nursing homes.

The state clearly must work harder to assure neighborhoods that it is a responsible watchdog over group home licensees.

Operators must do a better job of persuading prospective neighbors that they need not fear group homes. And residents need to understand why group homes are a responsible, more efficient and often effective alternative to large institutions -- and that they need to be in neighborhoods to succeed.

Closing institutions

Group homes were the offspring of "deinstitutionalization."

Mental hospitals that held as many as 650,000 patients in the United States in the 1950s house a tenth of that population now, according to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. The development of psychoactive drugs lessened the need to confine people in mental hospitals whose conditions could be controlled with medication. The Supreme Court ruled that people who were not deemed dangerous could not be held involuntarily.

Professionally run group homes also became popular for troubled juveniles, who were previously sent to adult facilities or "mom and pop" foster-care arrangements. The largest in this area -- the Montrose School in Owings Mills -- closed in 1988. It once housed 300 children as young as 8.

Health and social service professionals regard group homes as effective alternative care for people whose mental or physical capabilities or problems with substance abuse or the law require structure and supervision.

That's not to ignore publicized abuses by unscrupulous operators. But group homes appear to be here to stay and the demand is likely to grow, especially for the burgeoning senior population. Residential treatment is roughly two-thirds cheaper than the cost of care in larger institutions.

Housing law protection

Group homes are operated as businesses, but the law considers them the domiciles of the people who live in them.

Thus, they are protected by the federal Fair Housing Act, which was amended in 1988 to prohibit bias based on disability and family status. The law was enacted 20 years earlier to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.

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