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Group homes: the other side
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While there has been a great deal of scrutiny in recent months over the proliferation of group homes in Newton County, many of the operators of the homes have been reticent to speak publicly about concerns from the community.

However, a few took the time to speak with The News about their organizations and to address concerns from affected residents.

Angela Clark, executive director of Agape Sanctuary for the Children - a four-year-old non-profit agency which operates two homes in Newton County and is licensed to care for six children in each home - said she has been very disappointed and frustrated by reactions from the community.

"Every adult that is pointing fingers at Agape and other group homes should remember that they have kids, grandkids and that they were once a child," Clark said.

Clark said she doesn't like the term "group home" and instead refers to Agape as a "behavior management residential treatment center." She said the movements of children at Agape are watched closely by residents of Riverbend Street where the two homes are located.

"The kids have to stay at the house like they're animals. They're children." Clark said. "The world is so full of hate right now it's ridiculous."

 While Clark spoke at length of her grievances with the community, she was much more reserved when discussing Agape violations of Georgia Department of Human Resources Office of Regulatory Services rules and regulations. Since February, 2006, Agape homes have been investigated and found to be in violation of ORS regulations six times.

While several of the violations were for seemingly minor paperwork infractions, other violations were more serious, ranging from unsanitary kitchen conditions and the presence of dead roaches, ants and rodent droppings to a March 2007 incident where according to an inspection results report, one Agape employee struck a resident across the face after she used inappropriate language towards the employee.

Clark said that the employee who struck the resident was immediately fired, ORS was quickly notified of the incident and so was the child's family.

"I fired her on the spot and called in another staff (member) to replace her. I reprimanded the youth from getting in her face in the first place," said Clark. "We followed protocol and that's all we can do.

"We do our best to hire qualified individuals to attend to the daily needs of our youth. Our direct staff are not behavior management professionals. They only do daily needs such as cooking and cleaning," Clark said.

Clark would not comment on a November 2006 incident where residents of Agape reported to a visiting ORS representative that a staff member of Agape told the residents that she was told to leave with them because "The State was coming."

According to the inspection report from the incident, one resident stated the staff member "told them not to say anything because she didn't want to get into trouble."

Another resident reported that staff informed them that they (the residents) would be going to the library so "The State" would be unable to talk to them. The resident reported to the representative that staff from Agape have done this three times previously when surveyors came to inspect the home.

Clark said that the accusations of staff deliberately removing residents from the homes so that they cannot speak with ORS representatives are unfounded.

"I can not be responsible for people that I hire and their actions," Clark said. "I can only be responsible for what I did after what they do."

Agape homes are hardly the only group homes in Newton County to be found in violation of ORS rules and regulations. In the two years that inspection reports for group homes - otherwise referred to as child caring institutions - have been available online through the ORS Web site, nearly every group home in the county has been found to be in violation at least once, though many of the violations appear to be relatively minor and pertain generally to staff members not filling out paperwork correctly.

Exceptional Children's Home, located at 25 Pine Valley Drive, has been written up six times for violations since April 2006.

A staff member of Exceptional Children's Home was fired in April for showing up drunk to work, purchasing tobacco for the residents and for general poor work performance. It was also revealed that the staff member was arrested in 2002 for felony family violence-battery against a minor according to an inspection report of the home. ORS requires that background checks be conducted on all group home employees before they are allowed to come into contact with residents.

Contacted staff members of Exceptional Children's Home Inc. did not return calls from The News.

New Bridges Inc. has been written up eight times since April 2006. In an April 30 incident report for the home, the owner of the home was cited for using an improper restraining hold on one of the residents when the circumstances did not merit. In the same report the agency was cited for failing to have a sufficient number of qualified and trained staff as required to provide for the needs of the residents.

New Bridges Inc. was also cited for failing to supervise staff to ensure that assigned duties were performed adequately. The report states that while the agency had reported to ORS that it had four employees interviews with three residents revealed that they were unable to name any other staff members besides the owner of the home.

Contacted staff members of New Bridges Inc. did not return calls from The News.

With fourteen homes in Newton County, Project Adventure has incurred the most violations of any child caring agency - 27 since the start of 2006. However the vast majority of the violations appear to be failures to maintain complete files for residents regarding.

"All of our issues have predominantly been around paperwork," said Cindy Simpson, executive director of Project Adventure. "Most of the time it's because we've missed a signature or a date."

According to Simpson, Project Adventure employs a staff of 65 which includes home counselors, house parents, maintenance workers, psychologists, a nurse, mental health professionals and human service professionals.

There are currently 82 residents living in Project Adventure homes said Simpson.

A former counselor of Project Adventure Vincent Smith was charged with sexually assaulting at least seven boys living at Project Adventure in 2004.

Since that time Simpson said it has been an employment hiring policy of Project Adventure for prospective employees to undergo in addition to criminal background checks (which Smith passed) an interview with a psychologist.

The Georgia Youth Network Sunshine Residence, located at 12933 Brown Bridge Road, has been written up twice for violations since April. In May, the home was written up for an incident previously detailed in The News when five male juveniles ran away from the home before 10:30 p.m. on April 26 but were not reported missing to the Newton County Sheriff's Office until the next morning and to ORS within 24 hours of the incident.

Tammy Smith, who serves on the board of directors for the non-profit Georgia Youth Network, said that the staff members on duty that night, who failed to report the runaway juveniles, were no longer working for Georgia Youth Network.

"Had the workers followed the policy, they would have immediately contacted the director and the authorities. Basically the employees did not do their job or were hoping the boys would come back before anyone found out about it," said Smith of the incident. "Georgia Youth Network is doing the best that it can. Corrective actions have been made for the future."

Smith said she was disheartened that so much of the attention towards the presence of group homes in Newton County has been negative rather than positive.