Richie, a 17-year-old from the Maryland suburbs, has lived in six different homes since his mother turned him over to the juvenile justice system two years ago because he was "beyond parental control."
He had told a reporter recently how happy he was living with a set of foster parents who were chosen for him by the court. He had chopped six inches off his shoulder-length hair to try to get a job, he said.
He had been making plans to enroll in the a class to study electronincs. "My attitude in general has changed," he had said. "I feel pretty good about myself."
Three weeks later Richie (not his real name) was asked to leave the home after his foster parents found him with marijuana. Now he's living in another foster home, with another set of parents. He spends his nights hitchhiking to see friends who live in other parts of the county.
The foster homes and group homes are the repositories for many of the 6,000 teen-agers in Maryland whose parents decide each year that they can no longer cope with them. The homes are supposed to provide trained supervision and a structured environment, with restrictions on the children that they missed at home.
Many of them clearly do not provide adequately, and for children like Richie, the system can become a useless merry-go-round, which stops only at the age of 18 and adulthood.
Prince George's County's juvenile homes have been saddled with problems recently, starting with the closing of two J.M.F. Juvenile Homes last February amid allegations that a counselor at one of the homes physically [WORD ILLEGIBLE] The youths living there.
The two [WORD ILLEGIBLE], both in Brentwood, were "[WORD ILLEGIBLE] care" facilities where youths, charged with being beyond parental control by their parents, are sent while awaiting final placement in either a group home or foster home.
Frank Frey, administrator of the two homes, said they were closed after a counselor allegedly bit a girl on the leg because she had pulled his hair while the two were "horsing around."
An investigation conducted by juvenile services officials revealed that youths were allegedly sent to the basement in their underwear as punishment and were forced to sit up at a table all night if they misbehaved.
Frey received $15 a day from the state to support each child in his care.
The Ira Byram group home in Lanham closed after a weekend party last February at which unsupervised youths were caught by police using drugs and a 15-year-old girl was beaten with a broomstick.
Harvey Wasserman, who was head counselor at the home, said the boys who were living there had been accompanied home by counselors that weekend because the heat had broken down in the home.
Police said one of the boys returned and broke into the the house over the weekend and invited two neighborhood girls to attend a pot party.
Police were alerted by a neighbor who said a girl came to her door about 5 a.m. clad only in a pullover and underpants and told the neighbor she had been beaten by one of the Byram Home boys with a broom.
The Byram Home, according to Jim Dedes, supervisor of juvenile Services in Prince George's, began to decline after its $166,000 grant from the law Enforcement Assistance Administration ran out. The home was receiveing up to $660 a month per child from juvenile services and $20,000 a year from the county, he said.
Family Homes, Inc., which operates seven foster homes in Prince George's, is one of the largest organizations in Maryland that take in children in need of supervision. These homes are among the best facilities for youths, juvenile officials say, but even the Family Homes have not been devoid of problems.
Last month, two youths from a Riverdale Family Home pleaded "involved" (the term used in juvenile court instead of "guilty") to a breaking and entering of a private residence in Riverdale.
Youths from a New Carrollton Family Home were charged in the 1976 break-in of an FBI agent's home in that city.
The home at 5917 85th Ave. became the focus of community attention recently when the house father got into a scuffle with three boys assigned to that home by juvenile services, who had come home drunk on a Friday night.
Louis Talbot, the house father said one of the youths refused repeatedly to turn down the stereo and began using foul language to him. The youth also started playing with the family's telephone while Talbot's wife was talking on another extension.
When the youth raised his hand as if to punch him, Talbot said he hit the boy in the jaw and got him in a headlock on the floor.
Talbot said one of the other youths who had been drinking pushed over a plant with a lamp and a third youth picked up a knife, but was prevented from using it by a counselor who arrived at the house to help Talbot.
"There are going to be problems," said Raymond McKane, regional supervisor of Prince Georges' juvenile homes. "The very fact that you are dealing with kids who need to be straightened out means there will be some problems."
Foster homes "are an improvement over what we had previously," he said, referring to training schools and other types of detention centers.
Some officials saw some advantages to at least having training schools and detention centers they could hold out as a threat to these children in the foster homes and group homes.
In those days, said Montgomery County's Chief Juvenile Judge Douglas Moore, a judge could tell a youth with authority that "you will go to a group home and behave."
Family Homes is run by Stanley Levy, a former land developer from New Carrollton who began acquiring homes in 1972. His own home at 7300 Gavin St., was the first "family home."
Levy has since acquired five homes of his own, which he rents to his corporation. Juvenile Services pay up to $600 a month for the care of each child housed in one of the Levy homes.
Levy said he takes his salary from any funds from juvenile services left over in the corporation's bank account at the end of year. His salary is never more than $16,000, he said.
Levy sets up married couples in the homes, pays for their food and utilities and offers them a salary ranging from $50 to $75 a week to care for as many as eight youths. The foster parents are usually not trained in youth counseling but have to be, according to Levy, "giving sort of people."
Both Levy and the foster parents say that the community opposition to the homes has often been unfair and even outrageous.
Talbot, for example, recalled how a neighbor had asked him recently when he planned to close his windows and turn on the air conditioning for the summer. "My neighbor complained he could hear all of us talking at the dinner table at night." The Talbots had eight boys living with them at that time.
At the other end of the spectrum of juvenile homes is Karma Academy in Rockville, which places the youths in a far more structured atmosphere than a foster home.
Youngsters at Karma's two facilities in Montgomery receive daily therapy from trained psychologists, usually over a one-year period. The boys must shave their hair off like military recruits when they come to the home and the girls are not permitted to wear make-up when they first come to the home.
It's all part of an effort to help the youths change the self image they have -- often a poor one -- before they come to the home, according to Karma's director, Jack Merwin.
"A group home is a kind of holding facility implying that the youth's problem is outside himself and that if taken out of his home, he will function better," Merwin said. Youths at Karma, he added, "are in dire need of a serious change in their personal life style."
Youths with drug problems are often sent by the court to Karma facilities.
Montgomery County homes receive a subsidy from the county as well as from the state department of juvenile services, unlike Prince Georges homes that only receive state money. "We just don't have as much money as Montgomery County," said a spokesman for Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr.