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Girls and Boys Town’s new Capitol view isn’t going over well with its Southeast neighbors.
Wilbert “Will” Hill, vice chair of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B08 and “unofficial mayor” of the eastern end of Capitol Hill, is usually a neighborhood booster. But today, as he ambles down a street just a few blocks from his brick town house near the Potomac Avenue Metro, he offers up a litany of its troubles.
Within a five-block radius of his home, Hill points out a group home for the mentally ill and a walk-in center for women returning from prison. He observes that drug sales go down regularly on several corners just off Pennsylvania Avenue. Police statistics for this neighborhood include at least three homicides, three sexual assaults, and a dozen robberies in the past year.
Hill argues that this end of Capitol Hill is no place for kids, least of all for the 40 to 50 troubled kids whom Girls and Boys Town of Washington wants to settle on Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets SE. The site will expand the charity’s operations in the District, which already includes a site at 4801 Sargent Road NE that in 2000 provided shelter and educational services to more than 700 D.C. children.
Last year, Girls and Boys Town, which is a subsidiary of the Nebraska-based home for troubled youth founded in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan, bought the Pennsylvania Avenue site from a private owner for $8.2 million. Anticipating a poor welcome, perhaps, Girls and Boys Town officials didn’t immediately announce their arrival in Southeast. Residents found out who had bought the property, which was then a parking lot, several weeks after the sale had closed. Many still feel slighted.
“[Girls and Boys Town] never consulted the community. It’s been a total coverup,” says Victor Smith, who lives across the street from the site.
Legally, there is little that Capitol Hill residents can do to prevent the charity from building on its own land. (Girls and Boys Town could break ground at the site as soon as this summer.) Still, many of them have registered their disapproval. More than 1,500 neighbors have signed a petition opposing the new facility. Last month, 200 Girls and Boys Town opponents, including Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose and At-Large D.C. Councilmember Harold Brazil, staged a protest at the site. Around the neighborhood, a mix of well-tended homes and run-down or abandoned properties, you can see the same sign in scattered windows: “No Boys Town.”
The animosity isn’t one-sided, either. Girls and Boys Town Executive Director the Rev. Val Peter is equally critical of his opposition. He recently told the Omaha World Herald that Ambrose is known in Washington as “a loud-mouthed racist.” Mayor Anthony A. Williams also said in a March 14 interview on radio station WAMU that Peter had threatened to sue him personally if the mayor tried to stop construction of the new Girls and Boys Town. (Girls and Boys Town officials say Peter never threatened the mayor but merely reminded him that abused and neglected children are a protected class under federal civil rights laws.)
As for Capitol Hill residents who oppose the new site, Peter dismissed them in the Herald story as “ministers of selfishness.” A few days after the April 19 protest against the Pennsylvania Avenue site, Girls and Boys Town officials responded with a written plea to residents that played for sympathy and targeted prominent opponents of the new site by name. “Don’t turn your back on our neighborhood children,” the letter noted. “Tell Will Hill and Ellen Opper-Weiner to stop spreading stories that are untrue, unfair, unkind and unchristian [sic].”
Smith, who received the missive, complains, “[Girls and Boys Town] is playing the race card and the children card.”
Sneaking into the neighborhood is just one of many offenses that Girls and Boys Town has committed in the eyes of local residents. Not only does the charity plan to put vulnerable kids in a bad neighborhood, critics argue, but it wants to do so on a premium piece of real estate. The charity’s opponents have also targeted Girls and Boys Town’s vast financial holdings, the Congressional largess that helped fund its D.C. expansion, and the disparity between what the charity receives to care for children from the city and the amount given to foster parents in the District.
Girls and Boys Town purchased the last large undeveloped piece of commercially zoned land on Pennsylvania Avenue in this part of Capitol Hill. There are plenty of businesses nearby: a beauty salon, a liquor store, a fish market, and a KFC. But some residents believe that the Pennsylvania Avenue lot was their last chance to lure a supermarket or a major retailer such as Target, which would have given the neighborhood an economic boost that they say it desperately needs.
When it comes to development, “we’re treated like the back ass of Capitol Hill,” says Opper-Weiner, a longtime resident and prominent critic of Girls and Boys Town.
Instead of a Target or Fresh Fields, the lot will soon be the site of a shelter for up to 16 10- to 18-year-old kids and four long-term residences with six children each. All of the children who will live in the new Southeast facility will be in the care of the D.C. Department of Child and Family Services, as were the 232 D.C. children who lived in the shelter and long-term residence at the Girls and Boys Town’s Sargent Road NE site last year. (An additional 500 young people received other services, such as parenting classes, from the same facility.)
A few months ago, Girls and Boys Town opponents from Southeast ventured north to see for themselves the kinds of services the charity provides. In fact, Hill and Opper-Weiner made several trips to the Sargent Road facility, which sits back from quiet residential streets on the site of a former convent. The Tudor-style building is surrounded by several acres of rolling green hills and a stone wall.
But the Southeast visitors say what they learned about the Northeast site only fueled their fears. According to police service call reports for the Sargent Road facility, there were about 40 calls for missing persons from the facility in the first six months of last year, as well as a report of a sexual assault and three suicides at the site.
Girls and Boys Town spokesperson Sharon Robinson says that the service call reports paint a misleading picture. Under Girls and Boys Town’s contract with D.C. Child and Family Services, staff must report a child as missing if the child is 15 minutes late coming home. Once a kid turns up, the staff still has to make another service call to close out the missing-person report.
Robinson adds that no sexual assault took place at the site. She says that the staff called in the report after a girl who had just arrived at the facility told them about a sexual assault she had experienced before she came to stay there. And no suicide attempts have occurred at Girls and Boys Town, either. Robinson says the staff calls 911 whenever a child expresses suicidal thoughts. The service reports indicate that police did not take reports for the suicide or sexual assault calls.
Still, given the small number of children in residence at the Sargent Road siteabout 22 at any given timethe number of service calls for missing children has alarmed Girls and Boys Town’s new Capitol Hill neighbors, who anticipate more of the same.
Equally disturbing, they say, is the fact that Girls and Boys Town took years to address complaints that residents near the Northeast site had about noise from an emergency generator and a basketball court, and about water running off from the Girls and Boys Town property into their basements.
Northeast residents brought these concerns before the District’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) as recently as last year. Girls and Boys Town eventually wrapped the generator in a “baffler,” moved the court, and installed a wall and a grate to direct runoff into the sewers.
Girls and Boys Town officials concede that they might have made these fixes sooner if they had formed a community advisory committeeas the zoning appeals board had ordered them to do back in 1993, when Girls and Boys Town first bought the property. When the charity applied last year for a zoning variance to expand the Sargent Road site, BZA officials discovered that Girls and Boys Town had ignored the 1993 order and that neighbors’ concerns had not been resolved. Girls and Boys Town subsequently set up a committee, and it is forming another in Southeast for the Pennsylvania Avenue site. Yet these efforts at community relations have come too late to overcome the growing rancor on both sides.
To say that Girls and Boys Town has made some blunders in the community relations department would be an understatement. Fighting a charity that houses abused and neglected kids, on the other hand, hardly seems like a righteous cause.
At present, officials say there are more than 2,000 kids in the D.C. foster care system, and there are not enough foster homes for them. As a result, D.C. foster children spend, on average, 42 months in foster care. Still, local opponents insist that Girls and Boys Town is the heavy in this battle.
Critics of the new site point out that Girls and Boys Town has $850 million in assets. Its annual revenue of about $125 million is used to run homes for troubled kids in 18 states. Last April, the Chicago Tribune dubbed the charity’s home campus outside Omaha “the Disneyland of orphanages.”
With so much capital, Girls and Boys Town hardly seems in dire need of millions in taxpayer funds. But that is exactly what Congress handed to the charity three years ago. Girls and Boys Town was already a darling of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, in 1995, suggested that First Lady Hillary Clinton rent the 1938 Spencer Tracy classic Boys Town to gain insight into why federal money should be spent to place kids in orphanages instead of letting them remain at home with their mothers on public assistance.
With that kind of influential support, it didn’t take much lobbying for Peter to persuade Congress to give Girls and Boys Town $7.2 million to double its D.C. services. Congress earmarked the money for construction of a new facility and to fund the facility’s first year of operations. It was the first time that Girls and Boys Town had ever requested federal funds.
To some District residents, long weary of congressional meddling in local affairs, Congress’ decision to help save D.C. foster children by giving millions to an already wealthy charity seemed an arrogant gesture. The funding seems particularly troublesome to critics now, when Child and Family Services is returning to city control, after years under a court-appointed receivership.
Ambrose, for one, argues that Congress should have “put the $7 million in the city’s budget to provide additional supports and services to recruit more foster parents, so we could build our own system within the new Child and Family Services and place these kids with real families.”
Girls and Boys Town, which competes for city contracts, currently charges Child and Family Services $55,000 per year per child. By contrast, foster parents who take kids into their homes receive only between $8,000 and $10,000 per year per child. Many local child-welfare advocates agree with Ambrose. They argue that the money would be better spent on foster parents and other programs to find kids permanent homes.
“The system needs to figure out how to cut the number of kids bouncing around, so it only uses emergency homes for kids entering the system the first time. If we could stabilize placements for kids, it would reduce the need for more emergency homes,” says Fred Taylor, executive director of For Love of Children, an organization that works with at-risk youth in Shaw. But Taylor and others doubt such changes are likely to take place anytime soon. In the meantime, he says, “the city could use a few good emergency homes.”
With this need in mind, the Williams administration has tried to broker a compromise between Girls and Boys Town and Southeast residents, but to no avail. Staffers in the office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Eric Price met with Girls and Boys Town officials a few months ago and tried to persuade them to let a commercial business open on part of the site, but they were not interested, according to Williams’ office. Girls and Boys Town rejected the idea, spokesperson Robinson explains, because “the site is for the kids and nothing else.”
The mayor also set up a task force to sit down with both sides, but Peter refused to attend the first meeting, which was scheduled for April 17, when he heard that Hill and other opponents would be there. Such a meeting, Girls and Boys Town of Washington Director Connie Washington insists, would have been “nonproductive.”
Washington explains that the charity tried for two years to find government property to buy for a new site, and actually bid on two parcelsone by St. Elizabeths Hospital and another at Sheridan Terrace. Boys and Girls Town never received a reply, she says, so it went ahead and purchased the Pennsylvania Avenue lot. Robinson adds that any compromises the mayor’s office or city agencies have floated in the past several months have simply been a case of too little, too late.
Of course, in this increasingly bitter standoff, Girls and Boys Town’s refusal to compromise has only given local opponents another reason to keep fighting the charity. Once the Pennsylvania Avenue site opens, it still has to secure contracts to house foster children. Ambrose says she plans to write to the mayor, asking that the city not give the new Girls and Boys Town any work.
Girls and Boys Town officials are just as determined to bypass their critics. “The need is here,” Washington says. “We are not going to let the bureaucracy stop us.” CP