How suburban group homes work to reduce calls to police
Daily Herald filed Freedom of Information requests on emergency calls to 36 group homes.
Second of two parts
While most group homes operate quietly, their presence sometimes unknown even to their immediate neighbors, others create a surprisingly high volume of calls to emergency services.
A single 13-year-old client at an Elgin group home who was a chronic runaway generated 130 police contacts in 2010 and 2011. And a Naperville group home for troubled teen girls generated 723 calls to emergency services between January 2010 and May 2012.
On the other hand, a group home in Palatine run by Shelter Inc. posted only 20 calls for emergency services during that time, even though the agency serves a similar clientele -- abused and neglected children and adolescents. And five group homes run by the Little City Foundation in Palatine posted a combined 23 calls for emergency services. The foundation works with children who have developmental and intellectual disabilities.
The Daily Herald obtained the data by filing Freedom of Information requests with emergency personnel in several suburbs housing 36 group homes. The goal was to measure the validity of fears people sometimes express when a group home is proposed in their neighborhood.
While the numbers show that some clienteles present more management challenges than others, follow-up interviews with police, group home administrators and neighbors also found that when all work together, calls can decline dramatically. That's been the case in both Elgin and Naperville.
Causes of calls
Six teenage girls at a time typically live inside the Naperville home operated by ChildServ, which sits in the city's picturesque historic district, and staff is there 24/7. The girls were placed with the state due to abuse and neglect, and often have emotional and behavioral problems, officials said.
Records show that the top three categories for police services were for runaways (209 calls), follow-ups (203 calls) and missing person reports (171 calls). Other calls included 19 for disorderly conduct, six for theft, six for fights and six for battery.
"Generally, they're running out to be with their friends to hang out -- it's generally not something at the house," said Elizabeth Heneks, ChildServ's vice president of programs.
Out of concerns for the clients' privacy, ChildServ staff members declined to let the Daily Herald tour the home or talk to its staff. Department of Children and Family Services policy prevents their clients from talking to the media.
"Do we go there more frequently than other places in the community? Yes, I would say that would be a fair assertion, but I wouldn't say (police) are overloaded," Naperville Police Sgt. Gregg Bell said. "You have to look at the clientele who lives in there. These are young adults who are wards of the state who haven't had some of the best opportunities that some of us may have had, so they bring unique backgrounds and needs."
Earlier this year, ChildServ met with Naperville's new police chief and had other officers over for an open house with staff members. That meeting resulted in a closer partnership, officials said. From June 1 through and Dec. 12, there were only 26 calls for emergency services.
"We're working hard to get on board with the community in terms of building better relationships that really widen everyone's capacity to be good neighbors to each other and for people to also understand ChildServ's mission in terms of helping these kids," said James Jones, president and chief executive officer of ChildServ.
When it comes to an organization that runs multiple group homes within the same town, the Larkin Center generated the most calls among towns surveyed, with 1,989 from its nine Elgin locations between January 2010 and May 2012. But its call volume is on a downward trend, falling 44 percent last year and continuing to decline further this year.
The Larkin Center, which has been around since 1896, has homes for troubled teenage boys and girls, as well as for young adults with mental disabilities. The homes are serving 58 children and young adults, Executive Director Dennis Graf said.
In 2010, 961 of 1,168 calls were for residents who had left without telling staff members. House staff is obligated by state law to report them as runaways. Most runaways return after 15 minutes, Graf said. But the police paperwork can take two hours, according to Elgin Police Lt. Sean Rafferty.
One 13-year-old client was reported as a runaway 100 times between 2010 and 2011, and was involved in 30 other police contacts that included arrests for an off-site battery and a curfew violation, Rafferty said. Police met with Larkin Center staff members to discuss the situation and that client was later placed in more restrictive housing in southern Illinois, he said.
In 2008, Chuck Keysor, former president of the Near West Neighbors Association, found that Larkin Center clients were responsible for some of the crime in the neighborhood. In 2009 and 2011, Keysor met with Graf and suggested that the worst-behaved kids be split up.
The center eventually redistributed certain clients. Staff members were moved as well, Graf said.
"Kids did end up getting moved not because they were runners, but because the house with the programming (they needed) was different," Graf said.
The Larkin Center also revamped its training for residents on house rules and regulations, said Michelle Potter, the center's chief operating officer.
And for two years, staff members met monthly with police. Now that the runaway numbers have fallen dramatically, staff members and police meet much less frequently, Graf said.
Graf pointed out that only a handful of kids are generating crime reports.
"By far, most of the people believe these kids deserve a chance, and we need to give them one," he said.
Last year, when someone stole nearly all of the Christmas presents for Larkin's clients, the community stepped up, including Larkin High School students who collected hundreds of dollars and the Boys and Girls Club of Elgin. Donations more than made up for what was stolen.
"I knew people would try and help," Graf said, "but I was very surprised at the level of the outpouring."
And in Naperville, Community United Methodist Church has opened its doors to ChildServ by providing space for training events and meetings, and inviting the young women to attend theatrical events at the church.
The church also has donated bicycles to the house, and volunteers have done everything from planting its gardens to cleaning its storm drains,
"When people are struggling, when they're striving, when they're making a life for themselves, we think it's important to be present, to be available, to be supportive," the Rev. Melissa Hood said.
The neighbors who live two doors down from the ChildServ home said they have noticed the police activity. Liza Beaty, her husband, Rob, and their teenage daughters, Marie and Angelina, moved in two years ago. During the first summer and fall in their 105-year-old house, Liza Beaty saw fire trucks and squad cars at the home three times a week, and asked neighbors what was up, not knowing she was living by a group home.
While they accept the police activity as a way of life, Rob Beaty said coming from Indianapolis he wasn't used to seeing marked and unmarked squad cars idling on his street or having officers stop to question him on the way to work. "It's just unusual," he said.
Marie Beaty says the police activity makes her feel safer and the community needs to cut the girls some slack.
"I just feel sometimes they get a bad rap because of the stereotypes at halfway houses," she said. "They're just neighbors, like anyone else."