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Center's runaways concern neighbors



Published: Sun, August 5, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



At least 30 center residents ran away last year, but the facility administrator says he fears more for their safety on the streets of Youngstown.

By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Jodie Makosky of Zedaker Street has a 17-year-old son who has a habit of carrying a police scanner.

That's not unusual in this neighborhood that lies near Lincoln Place residential center for youth on East Indianola Avenue on the city's South Side. Like the Makoskys, many residents keep an ear to scanners, fearing they're in danger.

Lincoln Place houses about 200 children and teens, ages 8 to 18, who have been referred there by juvenile courts and Children Services boards from counties around the state. Since June 2000, when it moved from a former Youngstown State University dormitory, it has been in the building formerly known as Woodside Hospital, a state mental health facility.

Because federal policies prohibit locking the youth inside the building, employees cannot always keep them from fleeing. At least 30 ran away from the facility last year.

"We're very concerned," Makosky said. "This is very close. It's easy [for the juveniles] to disappear into here and you never know what they're liable to do."

Taking action: Neighbors are not notified when one of the residents leaves the home, so neighbors have bought police scanners to track runaway reports, Makosky said. They call one another with warnings to lock up homes.

Fear is widespread in this quiet community of mowed lawns and flower-lined front porches. Mothers fear for teen-age daughters. The elderly fear for themselves and their homes.

"I have had [runaways] in my own yard," said Barbara Kelly, who lives on Marmion Avenue. "I don't feel there's adequate protection. ... I don't feel they're adequately watched."

Kelly has a 16-year-old daughter who's afraid to walk out the front door of her home.

"This is really a serious problem," Kelly said. "It's really sad and there's no way to get them out."

In police records: Youngstown Police Department records show that officers responded to Lincoln Place nearly 200 times last year. At least 30 of those calls related to runaways. In some cases, the runaways leave in pairs or groups.

Reports show teens walking out unlocked doors and jumping over fences. In one case, a 15-year-old girl left the building during a fire alarm and kept running, a red teddy bear in her arms. In another, a door through which two 17-year-old boys ran is referred to as an "AWOL door."

Administrator's view: Lincoln Place Administrator Dallas Lough said he, too, has fears when residents walk away -- but his are for the safety of the Lincoln Place youth.

"Do I like AWOLs? Absolutely not," Lough said. "Do I like to see kids run? No. It scares me. I'm afraid they're going to get hurt out in Youngstown."

He said he becomes defensive when "paranoid" neighbors accuse residents of wreaking havoc on neighborhoods.

"None of the kids who has ever left has ever committed a crime in this area," he said. "You have nervous people. ... What they need to do is worry about the kids in their own community. Our kids aren't committing the crimes in Youngstown."

Lough said at least three cars have been stolen from the center's lot and others have been vandalized, all by people who live outside of Lincoln Place.

Some children inside Lincoln Place have had behavioral problems that landed them in the criminal justice system, he said. Residents may have been involved in domestic violence or car thefts, or they may be truant from school. Few, he said, have committed felony crimes. Some are sex offenders, according to state records. But administrators say serious felons who are considered a threat to society are not referred to residential centers.

Number served: Last year, Lough said, Lincoln Place served about 1,000 children, most of them from Ohio counties outside Mahoning County. Besides juvenile offenders, the center provides a haven for abused or neglected children awaiting foster-care placement and youth witnesses of crimes.

Like schools and any other group home, administrators are required to call police whenever there is a rule infraction at the center, Lough said.

Of the approximately 200 times Youngstown police were called to the facility in 2000, 16 arrests were made, records show. Besides responding to calls about runaways, some police reports document fistfights. In others, they report residents who become angry or unruly and vandalize center property.

Reports of these types of infractions -- and rumors of worse behavior -- have fueled the fears of nearby residents.

What neighbors say: On Cornell Avenue, Edward Hunter said being near the juvenile home has meant lifestyle changes.

"I like to sleep with my doors open, but now I don't feel so safe, with the runaways," he said. "Before, it wasn't like that. Now, I have to use special precautions."

Theresa Gilford moved into her home on the same street earlier this summer. She said she has some concerns that an escapee could harm her 3-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

Also on Cornell, Fred Parsons recalls a time when a runaway was staying in a now-demolished abandoned house. The teen was found peeking in windows and asked some community members for a ride home.

Youngstown Detective Sgt. Sam Scott said many of the runaways seem most interested in getting home. Those from the Cleveland area head for the freeways. Last month, Austintown police found three Lincoln Place male runaways, two 15-year-olds and a 17-year-old, walking west along Interstate 80.

Overlooking the good: Lough said neighbors who complain overlook the good the facility is doing. Lincoln Place is one of the largest employers in the city, with 200 workers, and also provides work to employees at outside companies that serve the facility, such as food service workers. The center also pays taxes to the city. Further, he said, Lincoln Place's presence has helped clean up some gang and drug activity in nearby buildings.

Besides the help to the community, Lough said, "a lot of good things happen inside these walls that no one ever hears about." Pupils are educated at the Compass Education Center "School of Tomorrow;" they receive counseling, medical and psychiatric care and substance-abuse treatment; they work in the community and they change their lives, he said.

"We're not this horrible person in the community that's trying to destroy the community," Lough said.

Measures to prevent runaways have been taken, but because federal policy prohibits the locking of doors, if the kids want to leave, "you're not going to stop them," he said.

If residents flee, they are not allowed back at Lincoln Place. Lough said they are returned to their home counties where they face new charges involving running away.

Seeing both sides: Harry Strabala, chairman of a Lincoln Place community advisory group, said he understands residents' fears, but also understands that administrators' "hands are tied" because they are prohibited from locking doors.

Administrators have been quick to respond to concerns, he said, noting that a deputy sheriff was hired at the advisory group's request and fire-alarm boxes were covered to help prevent residents from pulling false alarms.

He added that not all of the facility's neighbors are fearful. Some, in fact, feel there are no problems, he said.

City Councilman John R. Swierz, D-7th, said Lincoln Place is preferable to the vacant structure it moved into. After Woodside closed in 1996, Swierz said, the building was a target of thieves and intruders. Lincoln Place's presence is a better alternative and also provides jobs, he said.

"Do I think it is an ideal situation? No, I do not," Swierz said. "I think there is always some concern for constituents. The fear factor is always out there. But you have to look at the pluses and minuses."

viviano@vindy.com




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