Residents who live near a city-run group home for juvenile offenders are urging the Department of Human Resources to investigate the cause of behavior problems cited in a recent DHR study charging that some youths in group homes are ungovernable.
Earlier this month DHR advised the chief judge of the Superior Court that a secure facility is needed for several such youths, whom DHR has found to be uncontrollable in the open setting of a group home. The agency estimated there are about 15 such youths in one city-run and two private contract home. There are presently 24 youths in the homes.
Richard Sowell, director of a neighborhood advisory group created last summer to work with the city-run home at 82 V St. NW, said DHR had reneged on staff and program commitments they outlined last year. This and the lack of proper staffing are contributing to some of the problems, he charged.
Sowell said the agency had promised to provide a fulltime psychological counselor, and a recreation room was to have been installed in the basement of the home. Neither of these things has been provided, he said.
However, DHR officials said the commitments would be met and would go into effect thia year.
Beginning Feb. 1, a psychologist will begin peer-group counseling at the home, said youth services director Thaddeus Taylor. Funds also are being sought for the recreation room, he said.
During the eight months the home has been in operation, Sowell said, the staff and the girls have rarely participated in community programs despite DHR claims that the home was designed to help youth re-enter the community.There presently are eight girls in the home, which has a capacity for 12.
"We want them to belong to the community," Sowell said. Some of the counselors, he added, "are not teaching them to become productive persons in the community. You can't do that in the house."
Sowell said the home should be kept in the neighborhood, but emphasized that staff changes should be made. However, some area residents said they felt they no longer wanted to cope with the disruptions caused by the home and wanted it closed.
Albert Russo, DHR director, called the criticisms "presumptuous and unfounded."
"I suspect the neighbors are going a little too far," he said emphatically. "I've visited the house at 82 V Street every single week. I've talked to several neighbors and at no time have the neighbors complained to me.
"We do not condone this type of (unruly) behavior at 82 V Street. I regard many of these criticisms as totally unfounded."
However, Russo said, he recently received an anonymous call from "an alleged neighbor on V Street," alleging that there had been some prostitution at the 82 V Street house.
"That would mean that DHR is acting in a pimp role," he said.
He added that the person had been mislead, the accusation was false "or someone's led me down the primrose path."
Sowell's criticisms of the staff were reiterated by several residents of the area, who cited incidents where girls from the home had become unruly, but the staff failed to control them.
Abbie Johnson, whose house faces the home, recalled an incident in which one of the girls came out of the house and threw a bottle in the street. The broken glass barely missed Johnson.
"Mr. Sowell was coming along in his car. He jumped out and told her to pick up the glass," Johnson said.
Sowell said he intervened because an argument broke out after Johnson told the girl to pick up the glass.
"I had to jump out there and stop her from cursing the woman out while two counselors were standing on the porch watching it going on," he said.
Added Johnson, "A lot of times those girls have said things to me, and my husband just told me not to answer them back. The counselors don't try to say anything to them."
Another resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said she has called the mayor's office numerous times to complain about unruly behavior.
"I'm just tired of getting upset," she said, adding that some youths "come around the alley (next to the group home), have sex in the alley and smoke pot. You have to close the windows to keep the odor from coming in. Once in a while a counselor will call one or two of them and tell them to come in. If they don't, they (the counselors) go back in.
"I want to get out. I can't stand it. The winter's bad enough. If I have to go through another summer of it, oh boy."
The resident said the girls also threw trash in her yard and other neighbors' yards, and that loud radio playing sometimes continued until early in the morning.
DHR officials said staff members are qualified to handle any situation that might arise at the home, although the staff generally acts in a supervisory, rather than a treatment, capacity.
"I really resent the connotation that the people we have in our houses are not trained people," said William Barr, directore of the city's welfare agency. "They have the skills to handle that behavior to the extent that other people can't do it. It's a matter of experience. It's not necessarily a college education."
DHR officials have said that not all the counselors at the home have college degrees.
Barr said the counselors are expected to serve as role models and to handle unruly situations with physical and emotional restraint. "They're not responsible for controlling (the girls), they treat them," he said.
Gertrude Thompson, an administrator at the home, said various recreational activities such as parties, picnics and sports events, have been planned for the girls but they won't always participate.
For instance, the girls were told they could take a ceramics class at a local church, said Thompson, but they refused to go. On other occasions, the girls have expressed a desire to go on a picnic or to a movie; arrangements were made, and then they refused to go, she said.
A periodic frustration experienced by the staff, said Thompson, are the testing periods new residents put the counselors through.
"When we get new kids in (ever 2 or 3 months) they're influenced by the others (who aren't behaving). Nine out of 10 times they knew each other from Maple Glen."
Maple Glen is the former city-run institution where most of the girls and staff came from. Thompson said the girls were better behaved at the institution "because they couldn't just roam the streets." Although she said most of the troublemakers are no longer in the home, she indicated that there are moments when the staff is caught off-guard by a girl's behavior because her record doesn't reflect the Jekyl-and Hyde like behavior they are witnessing.
Some of the girls have psychological problems that cannot be immediately controlled by the counseling, rap sessions or supervision from the staff, she said. In these cases, the counselors do the best they can to support the treatment services being provided by the psychologists to whom the girls are referred.
In addition to recreational activities, Thompson said a career counselor, drug therapist and social therapist visit the home regularly.