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A neighborhood divided
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What was once a tranquil neighborhood has become embroiled in a controversy over the recent establishment of a group home in the subdivision.

Teenage male residents in the care of the Department of Juvenile Justice and formerly living at the Oasis Care Center on Fieldstone Court in District 3 had reportedly been harassing their neighbors for some time. Among the reported harassments are the vandalization, robbery and partial burning of a home adjacent to the Oasis home, causing approximately $100,000 in damage.

The group home is now closed as the Georgia Department of Human Resources' Office of Regulatory Services failed to renew the Oasis Care Center's license to operate the home.

"ORS has informed Oasis that it will not be renewing its license due to several violations," said Beverly Jones, a public information officer for the Division of Family and Children Services. "I was told it has a long history of non-compliance."

A month ago members of the Fieldstone Community Association contacted their district commissioner, Ester Fleming, with their concerns about the group home. At a well-attended community association meeting in late January, Fieldstone residents met with Fleming and Sen. John Douglas who told members that they would look into the situation.

Earlier this week the County Attorney's Office dispatched a letter to DHR - which has oversight over all group homes in the state- asking them to revoke the group home's license.

 The letter was sent as a precursory action to filing a lawsuit against the owners of the group home in the event no other resolution could be reached.

DHR is believed to have revoked the home's license prior to receiving the letter as the result of several violations found on the part of the home. In the five inspections the home has had since opening, it has been found in violation of DHR regulations four times.

In the letter from the county to DHR, residents of the group home are accused of stalking their elderly neighbors, threatening them with physical harm and vandalizing vehicles in the neighborhood.

"There are all kinds of horrible things that have happened to the neighbors," said James Griffin, an attorney with County Attorney Tommy Craig's office who is handing the case on behalf of the BOC. "These residents are not being supervised. It's obvious from the neighbors that the people who own the home aren't doing what the regulations require them to do."

Since the home began to house DJJ youth in October 2007, the Newton County Sheriff's Office has received nearly 20 calls from the home including, three for runaway juveniles, four for missing persons, four juvenile problems and two burglary alarms.

Accusations on both sides

On Thursday afternoon the home appeared empty. A former Oasis staff member, Jonathan Balthazar, said the residents had been moved out of the home.

Oasis Care Center Owner Ellen Banks said she was in talks with Oasis' Board of Directors as to what to do next. Banks said plans to open other Oasis Care Center homes have come to a halt.

"We are seriously looking at if we are going to approach this in another state or if we are going to look at a hearing or an appeal," Banks said. "As it stands now there is no activity, as far as DJJ [youth] living in the home. I may be forced to sell it."

Banks denied the accusation that a resident living at the home had exposed himself to the seven-year-old child of Laurah Hensley, whose parents live next door to the group home. Banks also denied that residents of the group home had vandalized and burned the home of Hensley's parents. Banks said those incidents were still being investigated by the authorities.

Hensley has become particularly active in organizing residents of the Fieldstone subdivision to take their protests to the county as a result of the reported incidents.

Banks also denied accusations made by the county that her staff was incompetent in keeping track of the group home residents. Banks said Oasis had employed a staff of five - one director, two Human Service Professionals and three house parents to look after the residents.

Banks said the boys were supervised 24 hours a day. Banks said the number of youth living at the home never exceeded four. Banks went on to accuse Fieldstone residents of racism towards her and the residents of the group home.

Banks is black as are the DJJ youth who were living at the home. The majority of residents in the Fieldstone subdivision are white she said.

"I became aware that the neighbors were making racial slurs towards those children and accusing them of committing crimes," Banks said. "Those crimes were investigated, and we have yet to receive any further notice of action. These are all allegations, and I believe they are racially motivated."

While she had not witnessed any of the racial slurs herself, Banks said she had spoken with members of her staff who had witnessed the reported slurs yelled at the residents.

Banks said she has also spoken with several other black residents living in the subdivision who, she said, reported feeling that there was a degree of racism in the neighborhood.

After it became known that she would be opening a group home, Banks said she reached out to residents in the subdivision with the intent of finding mentors for the DJJ youth. Banks said she was only contacted by one neighbor who was interested in becoming a supporter of Oasis.

"We cannot claim to have run a perfect program," Banks said. "We were a new provider; this was [in] the embryonic state and you have to weed out the wrinkles but without any community support you're going to have your challenges."

Banks also claimed that the group home had been on the receiving end of vandalism as well. Banks said a $1,500 lawnmower had been stolen from the home. Banks said she did not believe the vandalization or the theft had been committed by any of her residents as they were all accounted for at the time the incidents occurred.

"They have to be fair and honest with the fact that we never pressed charges during the same time," Banks said.

When The News first reported on group home activity in Newton County in June 2007, there were 27 state licensed group homes in Newton County.

Currently there are only 22 group homes in the county according to DHR records.