Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Columns: Helping the "Children"

Here in little Delanco, NJ, there's a big issue in the news. A contractor for the state wants to take over an old mansion on the Delaware River and turn it into a "Residential Child Care Facility" for up to 36 boys aged 15 and over. These boys are "troubled" in that they have, according to the contractor, been "abused, neglected or abandoned."

The coverage of this story (primarily found in the Burlington County Times) has been rather interesting.

December 19, 2004: Delanco residents want info. News breaks that Capital Academy has plans to move into our town. An attorney for Capital Academy makes an innovative claim:

Josephson contends the youth program is an allowed use under an existing approval granted by the township in 1999 for a "residential care facility." That approval did not specify the age of the facility's occupants.
He also maintains that because the program provides services to children under the care of the state and the program is subject to state oversight, "this facility is a state government facility that is not subject to local land use powers." [emphasis added]
I'm not quite sure how a private business, on private land, qualifies as a government facility simply by virtue of the fact that they do work under contract to the government. If that were the case, then companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing could claim to be federal agencies and not subject to local control. This company apparently believes it is above the law, and has little regard for the citizens of the township in which it wants to operate.

December 21, 2004: Proposal for youth facility rankles neighbors. The township starts to react to the proposal.

"I have a 14-year-old daughter, and I have to work," Cox says. "This is a very emotional issue for me. One of these kids can walk out of the back door and be in my backyard in 10 seconds."

The company proposing the use, Capital Academy, owned by Restorative Programming Inc. of Mercer County, plans to place youths ages 15 to 18 "who have emotional difficulties stemming from difficult life and family situations," often from abusive situations.

Residents such as Cox and her husband, Bruce, say they fear the youths could have violence or sex offenses in their past.

Capital Academy would be under contract with the state Department of Human Services to place the youths there.

Joe Delmar, a department spokesman, said the teens faced "severe emotional and behavioral issues" and were placed with state programs by the courts.

He said that he did not know specifically the backgrounds of youths who might be placed in Delanco, but that youths of similar backgrounds could have violent pasts. He said he did not know about sex offenses.

The lack of detailed knowledge about the backgrounds of those who might live there angers local residents.

"Our beef is that these kids have a history of violence and they plan to put them in an unsecured residential area 35 feet away from houses in a 100-year-old building with 65 windows and seven or eight doors," said Bruce Cox, a 43-year-old painter. [emphasis added]

December 27, 2004: MSNBC - Special Delanco meeting is Jan. 11. Restorative Programming sent a late afternoon fax to the township notifying them that they would be moving ahead.

The issue peaked last week when the agency notified the township that two boys would be housed at the mansion over the Christmas holiday, even as rumors swirled in the community that the agency was planning to bring in violent teenagers and sexual offenders.

Ultimately, the boys were not taken to the facility, but the township pursued a court order to keep the mansion closed to all the boys. Lawyers for both the township and the agency argued for well over an hour yesterday before Sweeney issued his ruling calling for an expedited decision by the land board.

December 28, 2004: Judge formally halts teen housing. The Philadelphia Inquirer's reporter covers the same essential facts, with one additional point:

A state judge yesterday temporarily barred a business from housing and treating emotionally disturbed teens at a waterfront mansion in Delanco.

Judge John A. Sweeney also ordered the township's Joint Land Use Board to hold a special hearing Jan. 11 - a week earlier than scheduled.

"I have to decide what's happening to a group of kids who were adjudicated and can't go home," Sweeney said. "What happens to those kids?"

His action in Superior Court in Mount Holly formalized an order he gave by phone Friday, when courts were closed. He called the matter "one of the most difficult cases before me in some time."

Restorative Programming's notification to the township was not on just any afternoon, but right at the beginning of the Christmas holiday. The township was forced to go to court on Christmas Eve to prevent them from executing their plans. Restorative Programming has demonstrated their arrogance and disdain for Delanco Township again.

January 03, 2005: New Jersey's youth treatment centers face problem with overcrowding. "Advocates" for "the children" have their say in the paper. About 1/4 of the children needing this type of treatment are placed out of state.
"If there are 250 children out of state, that's 250 too many," said Mary Lynne Reynolds, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Southwestern New Jersey. "Clinically, we have the expertise here, so why not keep the funding here and let the children be closer to their families."
Here's my question -- if these kids were abused, abandoned, or neglected by their families, why would they want to be closer to the source of that abuse or neglect?

January 12, 2005: Hundreds attend Delanco meeting. I was among those hundreds. I thought that the meeting was conducted in a very professional manner, and that the citizens (about 20% of the township's population) were quite restrained in their reactions. Here are the essential arguments made by Restorative Programming:
  1. The proposed use is consistent with the previous use.
    At issue before the board at the court-ordered hearing was whether a 1999 zoning variance given to the previous owner to operate an elder-care facility extends to the operation of a state-licensed "child-care facility."

    The 1999 variance was issued for a "residential health-care facility."

    Mercer County-based Restorative Programming Inc. has leased The Columns, an old mansion overlooking the Delaware River, for its Capital Academy program for boys ages 15-18.

    Restorative Programming attorney Thomas Carroll spelled out the agency's case to the land board by going step by step through a number of use variances and resolutions for the property going back to 1982.

    "In a nutshell...while it is not the same use, the (agency) use is significantly similar," he told the board.
  2. We are a state facility and not subject to local laws.
    Paul Josephson, a former state attorney who also represents the agency, has said it is his client's contention that the agency is immune to municipal rules because it is acting as an agent of the state by carrying out court-ordered treatment programs.
  3. These kids are not "bad" kids.

    As to the boys who would live at the academy, Restorative Programming Vice President Donald Christiano said, "No sexual offenders or those with any aggravated assaults or similar type crimes would be permitted into this program." [note - Christiano repeated this assertion nearly verbatim at least three or four times]

    "We do not take in sexual predators," he said. "We will not take in any kids who will pose a risk to ourselves, our program or the community."

Unfortunately, the limits of publishing a dead tree news source prevented the BCT from including the counter arguments presented by attorney Denis Germano, representing a group of concerned citizens. Mr. Germano very effectively skewered points 1 and 2 of Restorative Programming's arguments.
On point 1, he presented testimony from a township resident who had worked at the Columns when it operated as a home for senior citizens. The Columns at that time was literally a home, and not a health care facility. They could not provide even as simple a service as changing the dressings on a wound. The facility had one employee at night, and only a few during the day. Residents came and went as they pleased (and were able). He then called the director of the proposed facility, and elicited testimony to the degree of health care services to be provided, the activities to take place, and the staffing levels expected at the facility. One striking example of a difference -- while the senior citizens home had one staffer at night, the proposed child care facility would require one "youth worker" per seven residents at night to provide security and supervision of the boys.
Following his presentation of this testimony to show a essential difference in usage, Mr. Germano then presented documentation to the board concerning the variance it had issued in 1999 for expansion of the Columns to allow an assisted living (i.e., health care facility). For whatever reason, the operators of the Columns never acted on that variance, which would have allowed a significant expansion and additional services similar to those proposed by Restorative Programming. Under the zoning ordinance in effect at the time, any variance not acted upon within nine months expired. Mr. Germano showed that even if the proposed use was similar to that 1999 variance, the approval for that variance was no longer operative.
Mr. Germano also showed that an earlier claim by Restorative Programming was incorrect. In the article cited from December 19th, Mr. Josephson claimed that no age had been specified in prior approvals for the facility. Germano showed that in 1980, approval for a "prior non-conforming use" as an old age home was specifically granted to the owner of the Columns.
On point two, Mr. Germano was even more effective. Citing the same decision used by the applicant to claim his immunity from local zoning regulation, he pointed out their selective quoting to make them appear to be total fools. The decision cited had found that a private contractor, who was burning trees to clear land for a highway under a state contract, could not be prevented from doing so by the local township. What Restorative Programming failed to note in that decision was that the restriction on township action was limited to a contractor performing a state function on state-owned land.

In addition to presentations by the lawyers, the floor was opened to public comment. Both State Senator Diane Allen and State Rep. Herb Conaway (a Delanco resident) made their feelings known. Senator Allen noted that she had drafted legislation to prevent this type of thing from happening in the future. Rep. Conaway acknowledged that while the needs of the children are important, the needs of the township are equally important, and that this facility needs to be somewhere other than Delanco.

After more than five hours of testimony, lawyerly argument, and political statements, the board finally voted. Their attorney advised them to break their decision into five parts.
  1. Whether or not the previous variance applied
  2. Whether or not the proposed use was similar to the previous variant use
  3. Whether or not Capital Academy is a government agency
  4. Whether or not a government facility would be permitted in the residential zone
  5. Whether or not to grant a site plan review (without prejudice)
The board voted unanimously against the applicant's arguments on all points.

January 13, 2005: Columns decision headed back to court. Not surprisingly, Restorative Programming doesn't agree with the board's decision.
"We'll see them in Superior Court," Restorative Programming Inc.'s attorney Thomas Carroll said as he packed away his papers seconds after the board made its decision. "We've anticipated that this would ultimately end up being decided in court."

[description of the decision rationale elided]

Paul Josephson, a former state attorney who also represents the agency, said yesterday afternoon he wasn't surprised by the denial or the extent of the board's decision.

"I think the board's attorney was trying to be complete and not have it come back," Josephson said. "I was surprised by the total lack of deliberation by the board before making its decision."
Naturally, the people of Delanco don't want this facility. In a town of about 2500, an influx of 36 troubled youth could have a significant impact. Our small town has about 150 high school aged kids. Assuming about half are boys, these 36 kids would double the number of teen boys in town. A small town like Delanco simply cannot handle such an influx. Even if these boys are as closely supervised as the contractor claims, they will pose an unacceptable risk to our community.

Additionally, the arrogance demonstrated repeatedly by this company show that it has no interest in protecting the community. Restorative Programming's Capital Academy should look elsewhere. The citizens of Delanco will not stand for this type of treatment.