Easing tensions over group homes

Changes: Operators should notify neighborhoods early

government must resolve clustering

April 26, 1999

WHAT HAPPENS to a neighborhood when a group home opens? Often, nothing.

Police surveyed throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area said group homes do not increase crime. Officers' rare visits to group homes are to quell domestic disturbances that might occur in any neighborhood. Yet intense fear of group homes persists.

Some people in Hamilton in northeast Baltimore wanted someone to step in two years ago to block nonprofit operator Forward Motion from opening a group home for troubled teens. Two neighbors, after failing to stop it from opening, quickly sold their homes and moved.

But the home is hardly a topic of conversation anymore. Mike Lambright, who lives in the area, says he and his neighbors are more apt these days to rail about cars clogging their street, many driven by patrons of a nearby library branch.

The split-level Forward Motion home looks like any other residence on the block.

Inside, eight boys share four bedrooms. They have chores and set times for homework, recreation and counseling. They attend neighborhood schools. With a comfortable living room and kitchen, the house feels homey. But a poster of rules for residents clue a visitor that this dwelling is more regimented than a typical home.

It also isn't a typical home when a child leaves without permission. Police must be called to the house anytime a child runs away under Department of Juvenile Justice rules, says Priscilla Stevens, executive director of Forward Motion.

Some group homes do fulfill neighbors' worst fears. In Anne Arundel County, a home for troubled girls in Pasadena voluntarily closed two years ago after several residents repeatedly fought in public and shouted obscenities at passers-by.

The rare blowups feed resistance to group homes. But Michael Allen, for one, an attorney for the Bazelton Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, says he does not believe government should not restrict group homes to certain areas or require pre-notification, which he believes merely gives neighbors time to organize.

A flap last winter in Baltimore County's Worthington Valley over a proposed group home for emotionally disturbed teen-age boys helped prove his point. Bruce Bertell, who operates Family Advocacy Services, leased a $500,000 house, atypically expensive for a group home, a few miles from his own and in more affluent surroundings than he'd sought for other group homes. He called a meeting with the community. Neighbors reacted with such alarm, they ultimately bought the property to keep out the group home.

Nevertheless, more community interaction, not less, is critical to helping break down stereotypes. By keeping the public better informed, government can lessen the animosity by helping neighborhoods understand that group homes aren't as detrimental as they believe.

That said, government must do more to prevent a handful of neighborhoods from playing host to too many group homes.

Nonprofit and commercial group home operators typically seek large houses with big yards that cost around $100,000, to meet state size requirements as well as their bottom line. The largest stock of these is in older, urban areas. Many group homes concentrate in a few neighborhoods in the city and inner-ring suburbs. For juveniles, for example, Baltimore and Baltimore County each have roughly 20 group homes, with clusters in northeast Baltimore and the Liberty Road corridor. By comparison, newer suburbs in Howard, Harford and Carroll counties have two or three each.

What can be done to ease the tension between group homes and neighborhoods?

* Improve communication. The state agency that licenses group-home operators recommends that they meet with the community before moving in. That's good, but not enough. The mental health and juvenile agencies should notify city or county governments before approving group-home applications to help ensure a community meeting takes place.

* Stop the demagogy. Politicians need to stop demonizing group homes when a community gets riled over plans for one. Too often, elected leaders try to toss this hot potato in one another's lap, as Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger did in the discouraging Worthington controversy. They should have worked to broker a compromise.

* Provide funding to group home operators to make more neighborhoods affordable options. Some opponents argue that group homes don't belong near anyone. Wrong. Group homes belong in neighborhoods so their residents can be part of or rehabilitated back into society.

Neighbors must be kept informed and allowed to have their say because their relationship with the group home affects its success. Government has an obligation under law to protect group homes, but also to ensure the homes they certify are well-managed.

Group homes provide structure and stability for their residents. Because of their vital role in helping people who need society's assistance, they should not be unreasonably shunned.

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