Garden District residents seek closure of troubled group home

Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK --  Garden District neighbors had pushed for the closure of this group home for juveniles at 505 Camelia Ave. due to a series of problems that  led to dozens of calls to police. It will either be sold or used to house disabled women under a memorandum of understanding signed this week.
Advocate staff photo by ARTHUR D. LAUCK -- Garden District neighbors had pushed for the closure of this group home for juveniles at 505 Camelia Ave. due to a series of problems that led to dozens of calls to police. It will either be sold or used to house disabled women under a memorandum of understanding signed this week.

Garden District group home assailed

Garden District residents have renewed a push to shutter a group home for teenage boys that has been a source of concern among neighbors for years.

The effort has gained new momentum since four boys living at the Camelia Group Home allegedly broke into a neighboring 88-year-old woman’s home last month, stealing jewelry and a loaded handgun. A manager of the group home told the authorities one of her colleagues had failed to supervise the juveniles and “allows the kids to do whatever they want,” according to a police report.

While the group home is empty for the time being, Ray Mack, president of the Garden District Civic Association, said he hopes to persuade the state Department of Children and Family Services to revoke the home’s license or ensure sweeping changes in management should it ever take on a new group of residents.

“Outside of the damage to the neighborhood, the damage to the boys has been even greater,” Mack said. “We’re failing these children.”

The community also has reached out to state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who said he has asked state officials for an update on the status of the group home, located at 505 Camelia Avenue.

The group home, one of several founded by LSU basketball legend Collis B. Temple Jr., was first licensed by the state in 2003 and is operated by Harmony Center Inc., Temple’s nonprofit organization.

Temple refused to comment for this article, and it was not known exactly when juvenile residents were removed after the most recent incident or what Harmony Center’s plans are for the property for the future. Temple has said previously that he chose the Camelia Avenue location because children from troubled backgrounds who are in state custody have the right to live in a respectable and decent neighborhood.

Trey Williams, spokesman for the Department of Children and Family Services, said the Camelia Group Home still has an active license as a residential facility for children. Before the property is used again, Williams added, DCFS officials will conduct an inspection to “verify compliance.”

For some Garden District residents, last month’s burglary arrests were reminiscent of a March 2007 incident in which three residents of the same group home were booked in the attempted burglary of a Wisteria Street home. The home’s license was placed on a six-month probation less than two months later, due in large part to a lack of adequate staffing, according to state records.

Police have been called at least 53 times regarding incidents at the group home since January 2011, including 15 times last month, according to police records. Complaints ranged from fights and vandalism calls to one report of rape, the records show.

“A lot of the homeowners have complained to me over the past several years since the group home has been there,” said Sgt. Don Stone, who is in charge of extra duty patrols in the Garden District. “What other address can you find where the police have been there that many times?”

State officials have made several unannounced visits to the home and noted dozens of deficiencies, including five during the most recent inspection last month. The group home, according to inspection reports, failed to conduct an appropriate criminal background check of a new hire and was found to be missing other documentation.

A previous inspection in April 2012 found that a care worker at the home was “not responsible in her daily care and supervision of residents” and yelled at a resident using “profane and abusive language in front of his peers.”

Williams, however, noted that three of the past seven DCFS inspections of the home over the past year found no deficiencies.

In 2010, state officials revoked the licenses of four of Temple’s other group homes in Baton Rouge, prompting him to challenge the constitutionality of a 2009 law that allows for immediate closure of juvenile facilities in which deficiencies are found. State District Judge Janice Clark ruled in Temple’s favor last summer, finding the statute, as applied, “does offend the due process clause,” according to court minutes.

Williams, however, said state officials are aware of no written ruling by Clark that would limit the state’s regulatory authority.

Temple’s organization also is still defending a lawsuit filed in 19th Judicial District Court by the mother of a then 12-year-old boy who was allegedly raped by a 17-year-old at a group home on Main Street in 2008.

Police reports show a different juvenile reported being raped “multiple times” at the Camelia Group Home in May 2012. Lt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman, said no arrests were made and that “the kid apparently made it all up.”

Mary Norckauer, 88, has lived next door to the Camelia Group Home since it opened and said its residents have broken into her home at least three times. The most recent burglary happened about 4:30 p.m. March 9, shortly after Norckauer had left her home.

“They just ransacked the whole house,” Norckauer said.

Norckauer said she was alarmed and dismayed because she had sought to befriend the juveniles, even pumping their basketball once when it appeared to be flat. The teenagers stole at least $1,700 worth of her jewelry — including bracelets, pins, necklaces and earrings — along with several shooting competition medals and a loaded handgun, according to police reports.

Norckauer praised the quick work of the police, who according to reports recovered several items on the roof of the group home and elicited a confession from Calvin Dodson, 17, one of the youth taken into custody. Dodson told police he gave the handgun to another boy to hide in the upstairs bathroom of the group home.

“My family want me to move because it’s dangerous,” Norckauer said. “This is my family’s home, and they’re not about to push me out.”