Morristown neighbors came to town hall on Thursday night to blast a group home they say has made them fear for their children’s safety.
Residents of Headley Road accused the nonprofit Devereux Foundation of letting troubled teenaged boys roam unsupervised.
Neighbors spoke of screams at all hours, rock-throwing, litter, and profanity and threats when they walk their dogs. They described broken, boarded-up windows and punched-in walls at the home, and said the youths have knocked on their doors to bum cigarettes or borrow phones to call police.
“It really bothers me that I feel unsafe in my neighborhood… I don’t feel safe as a woman. I’m tired of seeing cops on my street all the time,” said Chloé Millea, a mother of two young children.
Devereux representatives vowed to keep improving staff training, and to consider hiring more staff and adding security personnel.
“We want to be good neighbors. We understand this has been going on for way too many years,” said Chapman Vail, director of behavioral health.
Mayor Tim Dougherty, citing 123 reported incidents at the group home this year, gave Devereux one week to submit a corrective plan.
“It’s gotten too far out of hand. You guys didn’t do your job. Now the ball’s in your court,” the Mayor told the representatives.
But it’s unclear how much leverage the town can exert. The group home’s contract is with the state, not the town. The Mayor said he would press state officials for details of that contract, and for enforcement of any performance provisions it contains.
Devereux officials said privacy laws prevented them from explaining conditions and circumstances of the five teens housed on Headley Road.
“They do have a lot of heavy-duty issues,” acknowledged Paul Ronollo, director of network operations for Devereux.
Headquartered in Pennsylvania, Devereux operates 15 centers in 11 states, employing 6,000 people, according to its website.
“Family engagement is one of the most important building blocks in successful treatment and outcomes,” the site states.
In New Jersey, Devereux says its operations/clientele look like this:
Services: Community-based group homes, supervised apartments, intensive, intermediate and traditional therapeutic foster care homes, emergency children’s capacity residence, intensive homes for dually diagnosed children and adults, professional consultation services, day treatment, and vocational programs.
Diagnoses: Emotional, behavioral and pervasive developmental disorders; autism, mild to severe developmental/intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and dual diagnosis.
Residents were angered that Ronollo did not know when Devereux assumed control of the home. A married couple had managed the site smoothly since 1980, neighbors said. About two years ago, they said, everything turned for the worse. One woman said she now fears she will be unable to sell her house.
Another resident, Joe Balzamo, described the youths as “thugs” who have tried taunting him to fight. He said the group home shifted from being just a “home with a large family” to “a facility. It’s a hospital, almost.”
Joanne Farell said she could not sleep because of the constant turbulence and was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
Citing unsettling incidents at a school bus stop, Rosemarie Yankosec said she no longer allows her children to walk past the group home. She threatened to press charges against the nonprofit and against one of the youths, if he is not removed.
Mark Bender vowed to sue the organization over a “small river” that cascades from its property into his house every time it rains hard.
Since residents sounded off at a town council meeting in June, Devereux has replaced staff members at the house and beefed up training for new shift workers, according to Program Manager Michael LePore.
Responding to bitter complaints about the nonprofit’s unresponsiveness, Chapman Vail, Devereux director of behavioral health, distributed his contact information to the 10 residents at Thursday’s special session.
Councilwoman Alison Deeb, organizer of the gathering, had raised concerns with Devereux officials in July about one particular youth. She questioned why that individual has not been relocated.
Ronollo replied that state officials and the youth’s family are involved in such decisions–and even then, finding another setting is challenging.
“As an agency, we are not allowed to call the state and say, ‘Get him out of here,'” Ronollo said.
The state favors residential placements over institutional settings or detention centers, he added.
Debbie Gottsleben, who resides nearby, suggested a tort claim notice would get the state’s attention–making it liable if anything bad occurs at the group home in the future.
Nobody is against group homes, Mayor Dougherty asserted. But they must do right by their neighbors.
“I’m grateful that people like you are helping kids,” the Mayor told Devereux officials. “But 123 calls is just not acceptable.”
Joanne Farell put it more bluntly.
“As you can tell,” she declared, “we’re not going to take it anymore.”