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Halfway Houses Trigger Alarm : Agoura Residents Fear Proliferation of Youth Homes

Times Staff Writer

Agoura residents who fear that their bedroom community is becoming a depository for juvenile delinquents are demanding new controls over privately run halfway houses in their neighborhoods.

Homeowners say a proliferation of state-licensed group homes for teen-agers with emotional disorders or on probation for minor crimes is burdening their schools and jeopardizing property values.

Residents say that three such homes, each housing six juveniles, have been opened in upper-middle-class, single-family neighborhoods in recent months and that a fourth is planned. Three of the four are within a half-mile area.

Seek New Law

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Homeowners plan to meet at 7:30 p.m. today at Sumac Elementary School to begin working for new legislation that would prevent a concentration of group homes in neighborhoods. State law requires only that they be 300 feet apart.

Group homes are licensed by the state Department of Social Services and are monitored by local probation departments and other child-placement agencies. They do not require operating permits from cities or counties.

Halfway house operators, who are paid $1,200 to $2,000 per month per child, deny that their homes represent a threat to neighborhoods. Operators say the teen-agers are watched closely, are not allowed to go out unsupervised and are subject to frequent drug tests. The juveniles range in age from 12 to 17 and come from communities throughout Southern California.

Quiet bedroom communities such as Agoura are a perfect place for the teen-agers’ rehabilitation, which is usually supervised by clinical psychologists, said Shirley Juels, who operates a program called Passageway from two Agoura homes and plans to soon open a third home.

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“These kids need to know and experience what a normal home environment and high school is,” Juels, of Chatsworth, said Tuesday. “Agoura is a good setting. That’s the reason I’m there.”

Near two of Juels’ Agoura Hills sites, a separate home is operated in the unincorporated Agoura neighborhood of Oak Park by an organization called Calabasas Academy. That group also houses children at its headquarters in Calabasas and in a group home in Canoga Park.

A spokeswoman for Calabasas Academy on Tuesday declined to discuss her organization, its program or tonight’s meeting. “It’s been such a horrible, horrible situation. I just can’t talk,” she said.

Mary Wiesbrock, a vice president of the Fountainwood Homeowners Assn., said tonight’s meeting was prompted by neighborhood concern. She said some homeowners are nervous over new disclosure laws that require home sellers to notify buyers of any problems that affect their house.

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Other residents said they are nervous over the halfway houses’ impact on Agoura’s schools.

Donald Kobabe, director of special pupil services for the Las Virgenes Unified School District, said his staff handles educational testing for teen-agers from both Passageway and Calabasas Academy. He said special education costs outstrip the amount of state funding his school district receives.

Kobabe said that halfway house operators have been cooperative, but that many of the youths require special education tutoring. “The more who do, the more our special ed classes become inundated and crowded,” he said.

There have been no incidents involving Passageway teens in Agoura Hills, said City Manager David N. Carmany, who will attend tonight’s meeting along with Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Sobisky. “I think these kids are getting a second chance that they deserve,” Carmany said.

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Called Authorities

In Oak Park, which is in Ventura County, John Bryan, who lives near the Calabasas Academy home, said he called sheriff’s deputies about the teen-agers congregating in the home’s back yard and smoking cigarettes at midnight.

Social Services officials said they had received no complaints about the homes.

Ron Laux, a supervisor at the department’s Santa Barbara office, which licenses homes in Ventura County, said the only complaints about the Oak Park home were made as it was being licensed before opening Oct. 28.

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Tom Shetka, a supervisor at the Social Services office in Culver City, which licenses homes in Los Angeles County, said his office had received no complaints regarding Agoura group houses. He said single-family neighborhood settings are an ideal place “to normalize these kids’ lives and square them away.”

Frances Young, who helps run the state licensing program from Sacramento, said there are 1,536 group homes housing 14,750 teen-agers in the state. “We don’t have the authority not to license because the community doesn’t want it there,” she said.

Halfway house operator Juels said she has empathy with her Agoura neighbors.

“I can’t say if they moved next to me I wouldn’t have some thoughts about it,” she said. “But we’re not talking about hardened criminals here. These are your kids and mine.”

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