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Neighbors wary about expansion of youth facility

Walpole officials press safety issues

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / August 28, 2011

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WALPOLE - The Home for Little Wanderers, the nation’s oldest nonprofit child services organization, has begun a major expansion at its Longview Farm facility in Walpole that will allow it to double the population in its programs, to the worry of some of its neighbors.

Construction of the $23 million expansion is expected to be complete in about two years. The facility will accommodate about 40 residential students and 40 day students, some of them to be moved from the Jamaica Plain Knight Children’s Center, which the nonprofit says it will sell to save $1 million annually.

But those who live near the Walpole facility say they expect the consolidation will result in an increase in difficulties in their neighborhood. They say the Home for Little Wanderers’ good name may bring to mind images of orphans being sheltered, but the boys now at Longview Farm have serious emotional problems that sometimes spill beyond the facility’s gates.

Longview Farm, founded in 1940, has historically served emotionally disturbed boys ages 10 to 17.

William Seymour, who lives on Lincoln Road near Longview, said problems there used to be rare - “nothing frightening or serious.’’ But over the last few years that has changed, he said.

Longview clients have knocked on Seymour’s door late at night demanding rides or to use the telephone. “It’s not that we don’t like kids. It’s that we want to be sure those of us who have lived here all these years can continue to enjoy living here without fear or concern,’’ Seymour said.

Seymour characterized the present operation as “more of a reform school than an orphanage,’’ noting that most boys there have been removed from their homes by the state. “These boys are certainly not ‘little wanderers,’ ’’ he said.

Peter Evers, the organization’s vice president of programs and operations, said the boys at Longview were taken into custody by the state Department of Children and Families either from foster or family situations that weren’t working out.

“Most youths we care for have post-traumatic stress disorders,’’ he said. “Some are from the state Department of Mental Health Services and have serious and persistent mental illness sometimes related to post-traumatic stress.’’ Longview’s day program attendees are from area schools that find they cannot educate the youngsters due to their challenges, Evers conceded.

“Many of the youths we work with have a number of issues that can get them in trouble with the law,’’ he said.

Neighbor John Mosetich said he has witnessed firsthand incidents involving troubled Longview youngsters. “We’ve often had kids in our front yard, people tackling kids across the street and bringing them back to the school, and kids fighting on the lawn of the school,’’ he said.

Lawrence Bongette said his neighbors have asked that students be kept on campus. “They come off campus a lot to ‘blow off steam,’ according to the staff,’’ Bongette said. “We say you’ve got 160 acres. Why not blow off steam on your own property?’’

Last summer, Longview’s problems led to frequent visits by local police, who one night arrested five youths after an on-campus brawl.

“We told them we weren’t in support of an expansion there unless they addressed their issues,’’ said Deputy Police Chief John Carmichael. He said administrators at the facility took steps, including moving a 60-day transitional program for older boys out of Walpole. Carmichael said the situation improved, “but we will definitely keep evaluating it.’’

At the selectmen’s order, Home for Little Wanderers’ administrators have met with neighbors. Lisa Rowan-Gillis, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, called the sessions successful.

“I think we’ve come a long way,’’ she said, pointing out that the school has since put in a dedicated line for neighbors with questions or complaints. “And it’s our intention to keep communicating.’’

But Mosetich said he doesn’t believe the meetings were successful: “We felt every comment we made fell on deaf ears.’’

Walpole selectmen chairman Eric Kraus said his board recently demanded “enhanced safety and security measures’’ at Longview, and some steps, including installation of security lighting, were put in place.

Kraus said selectmen legally have no authority to regulate the nonprofit’s operation. The board’s authority, as local public safety commissioners, is limited to safety concerns.

“At the end of the day, we remain very concerned about the safety of the students and staff, as well as the well-being of Lincoln Road residents,’’ Kraus said. “While progress has been made, we are cautiously optimistic that additional measures will be put in place as the home expands to eliminate any increase in disruptive behavior.’’

Meanwhile, both town officials and neighbors say they are opposed to a plan to integrate girls into Longview. The Knight Children’s Center population includes 5- to 13-year-old boys and girls, with their own set of emotional and behavioral issues. There has also been discussion of adding girls to the upper-age population.

Rowan-Gillis said the incoming group will be broken up. “The little kids will be co-ed and have their own residence building and school,’’ she said. The program for older youths, now all boys, is licensed to be co-ed, she said, and plans are in the works to add girls to the older population but only when there are enough to balance out the male population.

“We’re in no hurry,’’ she said.

Christine Legere can be reached at christinelegere@yahoo.com.