Shelter for boys has closed

Fellowship of Lights points to DSS referrals, finances

February 07, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

Fellowship of Lights, a nonprofit organization that has sheltered homeless and runaway teenagers for more than 30 years, has shut down one of its two Baltimore facilities, saying it can't properly care for the few deeply troubled boys being sent its way.

The problems became severe starting in July, when referrals from the Baltimore Department of Social Services declined and began to include more teenage boys with mental illnesses and behavior problems, said Ross Pologe, executive director of Fellowship of Lights.

The shelters for boys and girls weren't intended to handle violent teenagers or any with a long history of drug abuse. Fellowship of Lights hopes to reopen its nine-bed boys shelter, a rowhouse called Harris House in midtown Baltimore, after retooling its offerings to care for troubled teenagers, he said.

But Pologe said his group had to close the house in the meantime because financial losses had risen to $50,000. The organization laid off seven youth workers and a part-time cook and sent the remaining boys to other facilities.

Fellowship of Lights is not alone, according to the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. Many other shelters around the state that take care of children of all ages have seen a precipitous decline in the number of referrals from social services departments.

"None of them have maintained an occupancy level that allows them to be viable," said James McComb, the association's director, noting that youth shelters in Calvert and Montgomery counties closed last year.

The children who had been referred to shelters typically were those the state takes away from their families because of neglect or abuse. They also included those who had been placed in foster care but hadn't adapted well. In all those cases, the children need a temporary home, and the state pays a fee to providers to cover their care.

"I have no idea where the state is sheltering kids," said McComb.

What is clear, McComb and Pologe said, is that there seems to be a lack of communication among the institutions and the government agencies that place children with them.

The Maryland Department of Human Resources oversees the local departments of social services. Asked about the declining referrals, Elyn Jones, a spokesman for the department, said: "My thinking is that we have been better able to provide more intensive services that are needed."

If so, McComb said, the state has not informed the shelters of the change.

"If there is something you have relied on and you aren't going to use it, wouldn't you want to tell them that?" he said.

Samuel Chambers Jr., director of the Baltimore Department of Social Services, said that his department is becoming more efficient at placing children in long-term care, such as foster homes.

"We have increased our efficiency so that we can deal with kids more quickly," Chambers said.

But he also said the needs of the children have been greater, and fewer youths now fit the profile for Fellowship of Lights and other shelters.

Seven of the nine beds at Fellowship of Lights were reserved for teenagers who were sent from DSS, Pologe said. The program was designed to take teens for up to 90 days as a stopgap measure. But the teens who were being referred often needed much more psychological therapy than the program was able to provide.

For instance, DSS sent a 16-year-old who was described as a chronic runaway. He would run from locked facilities and had assaulted other teens and adults, including a correctional officer, Pologe said. DSS suggested that the child needed a locked facility, but Fellowship of Lights had never been intended as a place that held teens against their will.

Another was a 17-year-old who had served five months for armed robbery in an adult jail and was assaulting others.

In both cases, Fellowship of Lights declined the referrals.

Pologe said a girls shelter that Fellowship runs in downtown Baltimore remains full. Peggy's Place continues to operate. He said he cannot explain why there are enough referrals for girls and not boys, but he suspects it has to do with a culture that encourages more violent and independent behavior from boys.

"I think this population of young men are so challenged by the lack of support in their lives, the lack of caring adults and the frequency of institutional placements," he said. The result is that they tend to become more combative than the girls, he said.

The closure of Harris House will give Fellowship of Lights time to re-evaluate its services. "It is an opportunity to figure out where we are and what we can provide," said Mark Carter, chairman of the group's board of trustees.

Carter added that it also is an "opportunity for every state and city agency that works with us to do a better job on behalf of young people."

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