Justice Top News Uncategorized — 04 April 2014
Capital News Service

BALTIMORE – On the corner of a quiet Kenilworth Park neighborhood, sits One Love Group Home — a spacious, gray house with a fenced backyard. Except for the fire escape — built to meet the Department of Juvenile Services’ regulations — it looks like any other house in the area. Inside, four teen boys find a home to help them navigate the difficult path from detention to rejoining their communities.

Residents are placed in the facility after serving time in juvenile detention centers. While at One Love, they are able to attend public high school or enroll in the Yo! Baltimore general education diploma classes. One Love staff members impose rules, structure and offer guidance in an environment very different from a detention center.

“Residents are still in custody, but the idea is to place them in a home environment,” said James Stokes, program administrator of One Love Group Home, which opened in January 2011.

The teens currently occupy all four of the resident bedrooms in the home. Each bed is neatly made, and there is minimal clutter — shoes, clothes, family photos and letters. Provocative or explicit posters are forbidden, Stokes said. And there are no locks on bedroom doors.

There is around-the-clock staff coverage. Homework time is from 4-6 p.m. Dinner is from 6-7 p.m. and free time is from 7 p.m. until the teens’ 11 p.m. bedtime. Through scheduling and a reward system that ties privileges to success in following the house rules, the staff is able to provide the residents with structure and stability.

Stokes said that in addition to attending school, residents have played on the football team, attended the prom and taken SAT prep courses outside of school hours. Stokes said that the goal of the staff is to “turn boys to men” by teaching them important life skills.

“Once they turn 21, the state state is no longer responsible for them,” said Stokes, adding that some of the ill-prepared youth end up homeless after reaching adulthood.

During free time, residents are able to gather in the activity room. Here, the teens can watch the 47-inch flat screen television, play video games and use one of two computers with filtered Internet access. Stokes said that video games that contain violence are banned. Residents are also allowed visitors approved by the Department of Juvenile Services.

The teens receive a weekly allowance of $20 from Juvenile Services, which they can spend at their discretion. They also receive Medicaid and the group home staff is responsible for providing the residents three meals and snacks per day.

Residents are granted curfews and “passes” to spend time away from the home based on their current levels, Stokes said. Upon arrival, residents are placed on level one, which comes with limited privileges, and no unsupervised time away, Stokes explained.

Through a point system, the teens are able to advance to the maximum level — three, which comes with the largest amount of privileges, including a 9 p.m. curfew and two weekend passes per month. Misbehavior can result in point deduction and subsequent level reduction.

Stokes said that when away from home, residents must check in once per hour. If granted a weekend pass, they must check in once a day. If a resident does not call or return home one hour after curfew, the Department of Juvenile Services is alerted. Each resident is searched upon re-entry each time they leave the home. Drug tests are randomly conducted.

“They like structure,” Stokes said. He said the residents understand that rules are in place to prepare them for the real world. “They know we enforce the rules because we care about them.”

This sentiment is not lost on residents.

Dontae, 19, a resident of One Love, credited his case manager, Lorenzo Cooper, with being a great mentor and source of support. Dontae said that Cooper holds the residents accountable, and it is appreciated.

“He stays on us. We didn’t have anyone doing that growing up.” Dontae said. Capital News Service is not using Dontae’s full name, because his crimes were committed as a juvenile.

In the One Love Group Home office, Tarsha Swift, house manager, speaks to a resident about his weekly allowance. Capital News Service photo by Tamieka Briscoe.

Robbery, assault, theft, and being deemed by the courts as “ungovernable” were some of the offenses that have brought past residents into the juvenile justice system. Stokes said the group home does not take sex offenders or youth with an extensive arson history because of the specialized therapy required.

The facility has seven beds. Two of the rooms are equipped for roommates.

Stokes said that staff considers age when determining who will become roommates. The residents cannot have an age difference of more than three years. Personality, history of aggression and bullying are also considered.

If two residents are from the same neighborhood, they are not paired.

“We pair them with someone from another neighborhood to give them an opportunity to bond with other residents.” Stokes said. He said that another reason for this is to avoid “cliques” from forming.

The maximum age for residents is age 18, but if a resident turns 19 while in custody, they are able to remain at One Love if the state Department of Juvenile Services approves.

One Love is licensed and funded by the Department of Juvenile Services, and operated by Building Communities Today for Tomorrow, Inc.

Stokes, who said he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in social work at Morgan State University, handles the administrative tasks and ensures that the facility adheres to what he called “stringent guidelines” for group homes set by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

The placements typically range from 3 to 6 months, but the facility has had residents stay as long as 9 months, Stokes said. He works with Juvenile Services and each resident to create a plan to help ensure success after release, which could include the resident moving back with their family. Those with no family can receive access to an Independent Living Program, which gives teens an adult-supervised apartment of their own while they build job-readiness and money management skills.

Stokes said the staff strives to make residents feel part of a family. Dontae said that prior to receiving a gift basket from Stokes this past holiday season, the last time the teen received a Christmas present was at age 5, from his mother.

Tarsha Swift, the One Love house manager, said, “It is a really good program. We are home based. Although we are in a facility, we make it feel like home

“We don’t have to, but we keep in contact with past residents,” Swift said, adding that the success of the program is measured in residents leaving and “changing their lives.”

She cooks hearty meals like meatloaf and lasagna for the residents, takes them to appointments and handles the daily operations of the facility. Swift said that of the 24 residents placed at One Love Group Home to date, only two were unsuccessful.

Stokes explained the rare occurrence of youth being taken out of the program.

“We’re not a lock-down facility.” Stokes said, adding that having too much freedom proves to be too much for some of the residents who failed to adapt to the program. He added that when this takes place, youth are sent back to detention.

Other residents are able to utilize the resources offered through One Love to advance themselves.

Dontae is a senior at a local high school, where he said only those that know him personally are aware that he lives in a group home.

He was 9 years old the first time he was arrested and charged with arson, Dontae said, and his most recent charges were conspiracy of armed robbery and unauthorized use of a vehicle. Dontae served time in a facility in Iowa before being placed at One Love. He is scheduled to be released from group home custody in May after graduation.

“They need more places like One Love,” said Dontae, who said he has spent time in other group homes and Maryland detention centers such as Oak Hill and Cheltenham.

He participates in mental health counseling, and said that having counselors that listen and empathize with the residents make the process more effective.

Dontae said he plans to begin Baltimore City Community College next spring where he is considering studying law enforcement, agriculture or social networking.

But he admitted that change has not always been easy.

Dontae said that when he was first placed at One Love, he considered selling illegal drugs as a means to making money. He said that he considered saving his allowance provided by One Love to purchase and resell marijuana and crack.

“But then I thought of the consequences, I could go to jail.” Dontae said. He instead opted for what he calls his “long term plan” which includes taking a part-time job at a fast food restaurant, while completing school and saving money.

Stokes said that this was an example of Dontae understanding how to control his impulses.

“He weighed the outcome and decided not to go for the quick fix that could have landed him in more trouble.” Stokes said.

In addition to saving money, Dontae sends money to his mother who is currently incarcerated, and he helps his younger brothers who are in foster care. When he is allowed home visits, he stays with his aunt and allowed to visit his siblings.

Dontae is also working with Stokes to request Independent Living Program housing. The program is only available to him and all court-supervised youth until the age of 21.

Dontae wants to work for Mentor Maryland and said he will not allow his past to hold him back.

“I can be a positive role model,” he said.

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About the Author

Tamieka Briscoe is a graduate student at University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism covering the justice and juvenile justice beats in Annapolis. She has a Bachelor of Science in Communications with a concentration in Broadcast Journalism from Bowie State University. She has been an intern at CBS Radio and has contributed to publications including The Baltimore Sun, PULL Magazine, The Takoma Voice and The Diamondback. You can follow her on Twitter @TamiekaBriscoe