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New laws could close group homes
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While the recent surge in group homes in Newton County - which have caused many a headache for local law enforcement officers and affected neighbors - doesn't appear to be abating, new state regulations could soon result in some group homes closing up shop for good in the county.

According to the Georgia Department of Human Resources Office of Regulatory Services there are currently 27 child caring institutions or group homes licensed with ORS in the county. ORS defines a group home as an institution providing 24-hour care, lodging, supervision and maintenance to six or more children unrelated to the houseparent.

Though group homes have existed in Newton County for over twenty years - the first group home was established in Newton County in 1986 by Project Adventure's executive director Cindy Simpson - it wasn't until the State of Georgia decided to maximize the amount of federal funding group homes could receive from Medicaid in 2002, that the county saw a significant upsurge in group homes.

According to Edna Jackson, spokesperson for DHR, in 2004 there were 15 licensed group homes in Newton County - 14 of which were licensed to Project Adventure. Therefore, the remaining 12 group homes have only come into the county within the past three years.

As a result of concerns from law enforcement personnel and complaints from residents living near various group homes, the Newton County Board of Commissioners amended the county's zoning ordinance in December 2006 to only allow homes with a maximum of three juveniles unrelated to the houseparent in all residential zoning districts.

Something to consider is the fact that ORS only considers a group home to be one housing six or more juveniles whereas the county now defines a group home as one with three or more juveniles. This then raises the possibility that there are a significant number of facilities -which the county's ordinance would define as group homes but which the state does not -currently in existence in the county.

According to Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, a voluntary membership organization that represents providers of children and family services, particularly group home administrators, the increase in available federal funding from Medicaid has resulted in an upsurge in the number of available beds for juveniles at both child caring institutions and foster care homes in the last five years.

"We went from 2,200 beds in licensed child caring facilities to 3,300," Adams said. "That's a 50 percent increase in a very short time."

Additionally, said Adams, the state saw the number of available beds at foster homes rise to 2,400 for a total availability of 3,500 beds that juveniles could be placed in throughout the state. However, the state had only need of 2,500 of those beds during that period said Adams, resulting in an oversupply of 1,000 beds.

"In the last three years to five years there has been a significant increase in the number of group homes in Georgia," Adams said. "We probably have a 50 percent oversupply of those beds in the state of Georgia."

Adams said there has actually been a four year low in the number of children in Georgia needing to be placed in either group homes or in foster care.

Adams said he regularly sees 40 new providers wanting to set up their own group homes show up every month for orientation with GAHSC. Adams said his organization is not encouraging any new providers to set up their own group homes right now.

At least two of the group homes newly licensed in Newton County have no children currently living in them as of the homes' last inspection dates. They are Circle of Life Center for Children Inc. on 75 Ashton Court which was last inspected in January and Faith Happy Home on 5726 Salem Road which was last inspected in February.

"What we tell them is that the state, one, does not need new child caring facilities," Adams said. "We also tell them that the state is no longer contracting with new child caring facilities. We also say that we have probably 50 percent too many beds right now."

While some of the new providers coming forward in recent years to set up their own group homes have had good intentions and have genuinely wanted to help the children who for whatever reason have been placed in the custody of the state, Adams said his organization has concerns about other providers who appear to be doing it only for monetary gain.

"We personally share some concerns about many group homes that have sprung up," Adams said. "Frankly some of the operators of these facilities should not be opening up group homes.

"They do not have the community support behind them," Adams said. "They do not have the education, knowledge and experience to operate effectively a group home. Some of them appear to be operating from a profit motive rather than a charitable motive."

According to Adams, most of the facilities GAHSC represents have excellent reputations in the communities they are in because they provide so much support to the children they take care of. While Project Adventure is a member of GAHSC, Adams said none of the other group homes licensed in the county are members.

"Our association supports strong licensure, and we always have because it's the best thing for the support of these kids," Adams said. "We want ORS to enforce the regulations that they have. We share the concerns that everyone has when children are not properly cared for in any facility."