Saturday, October 21, 2000

Teen home skirts laws on licensing

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HARVEYSBURG — A group caring for troubled teen-agers in this Warren County village has alternately called itself a church, a Christian boarding school and a family.

        But neighbors and several state agencies consider it a group home, as defined by the Ohio Revised Code: an institution or association that receives and cares for children or places children in private homes.

Rev. Torres
Rev. Torres
        Arizona-based Teen Reach came to Harveysburg this spring with its mission of turning teens toward God and away from gangs, drugs and sex. The 18-year-old program houses 100 teens in four states, says the Rev. Bobby Torres, Teen Reach founder.

        It plans to expand its East Coast operations by building 21 houses for 105 troubled youths in Harveysburg, population 500. That might not happen overnight, however; the proposed site on Maple Avenue can't hold more than six houses until owner Paul Brothers makes improvements to the sewer system, Warren County Sanitary En gineer Dick Renneker said Friday.

        Whether Teen Reach is a group home or something else is important because that determines what neighborhoods it can legally occupy — it's now in a single-family residential neighborhood — and what licenses it needs to operate.

        At present, it lacks a group home license and a school charter, state officials say.

        Teen Reach's stance: “There is a separation between church and state,” said Mr. Brothers, a Harveysburg developer who brought the group to his community. “We are a church. We don't need licensing because we are not a group home.”

        But the state Department of Job and Family Services says religious affiliation does not negate the need for licensing. The department has been investigating at least since July, when its representative was denied entry to Teen Reach's home on Loraine Avenue in Harveysburg.

        Teen Reach also has run afoul of the Department of Education, for not getting a charter for its school, and the Fire Marshal's Office, for not having safety features that are required in group homes.

        The fire marshal, too, was denied entry and had to get a search warrant to conduct an inspection.

        Village officials so far have not contested Teen Reach's contention that it can properly exist on Loraine Avenue under Harveysburg's code.

        Churches and single families are allowed in residential neighborhoods. Group homes are permitted provided they have five or fewer pre-delinquent children and are licensed.

        Cincinnati attorney Joe Trauth, an expert on zoning issues, was doubtful Teen Reach could be considered a family or a church. To be a family, the parties usually have to be related, he said. To be a church, the group would have to meet the “common, colloquial understanding,” he said, such as holding regular, public worship services.

        In contrast to the controversy Teen Reach has stirred up, Midwestern Children's Home, a religious-based group in southwestern Warren County, has taken a cooperative attitude with state authorities.

        Its group home is licensed and its private school, Village Christian, is chartered.

        That occasionally has forced compromises on religious issues, said Midwestern administrator Chris Jones, but ultimately it's in the teens' best interest.

        “There is no provision in law whereby just anyone can start taking care of other people's kids,” Mr. Jones said. “The kids you're caring for are very vulner able. This business attracts people with problems of their own ... and it kind of sets the stage for further abuse of the kids.”

        Harveysburg residents also have raised concerns about supervision of the teens.

        They've seen up to 14 teen-agers at the Loraine house at a time, in addition to the couple that had been living there with their four young children.

        The Rev. Mr. Torres puts the total at 10 kids in two houses, but Mr. Brothers, who owns the properties Teen Reach is using, said in addition to Loraine Avenue, older teens are living at “some duplexes” he owns.

        The Fire Marshal's Office counted 20 beds in the Loraine Avenue house during its inspection Sept. 28, but just 10 beds were visible when the Rev. Mr. Torres took an Enquirer reporter and photographer on a tour of the home Thursday.


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