Residents speak out against youth center

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 21, 2000

DEERING – More than 100 people gathered Monday night in Deering to oppose the Children’s Center of Ohio, a newly-opened residential treatment facility for juvenile boys.

Tuesday, March 21, 2000

DEERING – More than 100 people gathered Monday night in Deering to oppose the Children’s Center of Ohio, a newly-opened residential treatment facility for juvenile boys.

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"You didn’t come to us and hold a town meeting to find out what the public sentiment was," said Darrell Barker, one of the meeting’s organizers.

"And that sentiment is we want you the hell out," Barker said, drawing cheers from the crowd of neighbors and community members.

County commissioners Paul Herrell and George Patterson also attended the meeting.

The county has no authority over the juvenile facility’s license or operation, but the board will fight for the residents, the commissioners said.

"We represent you all and if you want us to oppose it, then that’s what will happen," Patterson said.

"It boils down to we don’t want it here," Herrell said.

The commission will send letters to state Rep. John Carey and other legislative officials asking for intervention, although it will be a difficult process, he said.

The county also will scrutinize building permits and request information from the Ohio Department of Human Services – the agency that recently granted the juvenile center’s license.

Michael Burke, co-director and board member of the Children’s Center of Ohio, fielded questions from angry Rock Camp residents Monday night.

The non-profit agency is a 12-bed facility located in a renovated farmhouse on Neds Fork. It provides 24-hour treatment services to boys ages 13-17.

Types of children taken at the center could include truant children, those who have difficulties at school, failed foster home placements, those suffering from drug or alcohol abuse, children defiant to authority, children who have attempted suicide or made terroristic threats or who are beyond parental control, although the center does not accept youthful offenders, Burke said.

The center will concentrate on teens from the Ohio’s 33 southern counties, he said.

Herrell said the state can refer the cases and pays for their stay at the facility.

The six- to 12-month program uses behavioral treatment, like rewards, peer groups and other activities to encourage children to better themselves, Burke said.

It is not a timed stay, meaning that the teen must have full confidence from the staff that he or she is ready to leave the program, Burke said.

Chief among the community’s concerns is the potential danger of escaping teens, residents said.

Even with the promised staff of at least four – with two working directly with children during each eight-hour shift – the teens could overrun the facility and terrorize the neighborhood, they said.

"We plan for that not to happen," Burke said. "That’s a severe situation that has happened in facilities. But this is a highly-structured program. Before we accept any child, we interview them personally. We know what we’re getting."

The staff, who monitors the teens around the clock, will be able to handle any escapes, and all would be called in to help, he said.

Burke said the center could work out a plan where the center will notify residents, perhaps by phone, if any juvenile escapes.

Still, the center will rely on pre-screening and highly-structured treatment programs, he said.

"It’s a well-defined program that worked at Ramey-Estepp," Burke said. "We had an 86 percent success rate and we think that program will work here."

Ramey-Estepp is a boys’ home in Ashland, Ky., where Burke worked. He and co-director Robert Boggs live in Kentucky.

Residents reacted with skepticism to many of Burke’s comments.

Some wondered why the Children’s Center of Ohio picked Rock Camp as its site. Others questioned how the center could claim it will prevent escapes of unruly teens when they will be let outside for recreation.

"I think he should put it across from his house in Kentucky," Barker said.

Several complained about decreasing property values near the center.

Almost all residents criticized the lack of forewarning about the center and its future occupants.

"I talked to you last summer and told you you better notify the public," resident Bill Allen said.

"How long will you wait to tell us you have a runner."

There were also complaints that the house is not big enough, there is no security fence, it is located in the floodplain and it’s otherwise unfit for children.

The center has met stringent licensure requirements of the state, Burke said.

The corporation has insurance and will be responsible for property or personal damage due to a student escaping, he said.

The center has no plans to put the teens in public school at this time, Burke said.

But, by law it can, and that idea has Dawson-Bryant school officials worried, too, Herrell said.

After the meeting, Burke said he doesn’t want to be in a situation where the community says the center is not welcome.

"I think we can do things to help the community," he said.

Burke said the center would like to develop work programs where the teens can clean trash from roadsides or clear creeks.

Resident Carla Banfield said she has no personal problem with the facility.

"They have AWOLs in the military, jail breaks ," she said.

The courts have places to send violent youths, Mrs. Banfield said.

"These kids need hope. If they can get that help there, they should get it."

If he had thought of it at the time, a public meeting before the center opened would have been a good idea, Burke said.

"But would it have been a different meeting?" he said.

Burke said anyone may call the center at 534-1216 or 534-1217 for information.

Barker said residents will give commissioners a chance to help them. They also are circulating petitions. But the informal group is planning follow-up meetings on the juvenile center issue.