ANNAPOLIS — A special legislative committee on group homes is vowing to improve and toughen the way state agencies regulate such facilities.
Sen. Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George’s, who co-chairs the panel, made the pledge Wednesday after hearing from residents of Prince George’s County who live near group homes for the physically and mentally disabled.
One remedy, he said, may be to have a single state agency oversee all group homes, instead of the four — the Department of Human Resources (DHR), the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Corrections — that do now.
The Special Joint Committee on Group Homes was formed in June 1996 by Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., in response to several developments:
* the closing of Great Oaks, an institution for the mentally disabled in Prince George’s County,
* subsequent complaints by county residents that increased numbers of group homes had lowered their property values and put strangers in their neighborhoods,
* and a College Park lawsuit against a group home and county and state regulators.
Group homes have particularly inflamed some residents of College Park Estates, who told the joint committee this week that they are unhappy with how group homes land in their neighborhoods.
Fourteen residents of College Park Estates joined the City of College Park last November in suing Youth Resources Center of Hyattsville, the county and DHR after they discovered the center would, in February, locate a group home for boys in their neighborhood.
Residents claimed the center had misrepresented the clientele it would serve so it could get state and county permits for the home. The plaintiffs wanted to stop the group home from moving to Baylor Avenue until a court could determine whether the home would serve mentally handicapped youths or juvenile delinquents.
The residents and the city lost their case in the Prince George’s County Circuit Court.
The center then sued them, claiming the residents had violated the tenets of the Fair Housing Act with the original litigation. The Fair Housing Act protects people with physical or mental disabilities from being limited in their choice of housing.
A U.S. District Court on Tuesday dismissed the center’s suit.
Residents of College Park Estates said they were particularly incensed by the sale contract signed by the group home’s former owner, which had a privacy clause barring him from publicly revealing plans for the house for 30 days.
Ellen Davis of College Park Estates, one of the 14 residents named in the November lawsuit, said she thinks the center is hiding behind the mantle of the Fair Housing Act and that state agencies are “paralyzed” by the act.
Residents say they aren’t opposed to group homes, but to the way these homes end up in their neighborhoods. They want better means of involving themselves in the location process.
Youth Resources Center was not represented at Wednesday’s joint committee hearing. But Loretta d’Eustachio, a spokeswoman for the center, said in an interview that College Park residents misunderstood who the group home clients are. “They are at-risk teenagers who are troubled and emotionally disturbed,” d’Eustachio said. “They are not a danger to themselves or others, but are unable to live on their own.” -30-