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STATE CLOSING YOUTH GROUP HOME IN CITY; OFFICIALS LINK RICHMOND AVE. SHUTDOWN TOBUDGET WOES, DOWNPLAY CRITICISMS

While the head of New York's Division for Youth says he's satisfied with the way group homes in Buffalo are operating, one of the facilities is being shut down, and attempts are being made to bring new activities to the remaining three, state officials said.

Confronted with a hiring freeze because of budget problems, the state has decided to close down its group home on Richmond Avenue in order to free up staff needed at another Division for Youth facility in Buffalo, a mid-level
security center on Best Street, state officials said.

A wing of the Best Street center has been closed because of short-staffing -- the result of illnesses and the suspension of several officers charged with child abuse.

Meanwhile, there's been a drop in the number of youths in Buffalo group homes, so teen-agers in the Richmond facility can be transferred easily to
other group homes, officials said.

The move is scheduled for mid-January. The Richmond facility, which
recently underwent extensive renovation, will continue housing some of the division's administrative offices. Officials said it is possible the facility will resume housing youths, depending on staffing and resident levels as well as funding.

Officials said the closing is not related to articles published two months ago in The Buffalo News, detailing problems at the state's four group homes in Buffalo.

Division for Youth Director Leonard T. Dunston said the state has responded to those articles by attempting to improve activities offered youths in the homes. In the report, The News found there were relatively few organized activities for the teen-age delinquents. Youths spent much of their time playing basketball and watching videotapes of such horror movies as "Jason Takes Manhattan."

Dunston said attempts are being made to link group homes with university activities, voluntary agencies and other community groups.

Located in residential neighborhoods, the group homes are supposed to house youths as old as 18 who have minor scrapes with the law, or who can't get along with their families.

The News reported the homes are poorly supervised and plagued by violence. Youngsters receive sporadic counseling, routinely run away and commit crimes, and even encountered one counselor who, they claimed, offered them drugs and money in exchange for sex. In his first interview with The News since the articles were published Sept. 20 to Oct. 4, Dunston challenged other findings ofThe News series:

He disagrees that police were called to the homes on several occasions, and youths run away from the homes on a weekly -- sometimes daily -- basis. Dunston said police told the Division for Youth they do not have a breakdown of incidents that have occurred in group homes.

But records The News reviewed in the Buffalo Police Department's Juvenile Office showed the Division for Youth filed 89 missing-youth reports with police in 1989.

And records The News obtained from the Erie County Central Police Services Department provided a breakdown of the more than 600 times police were called to addresses of the nine Division for Youth group homes that operated in Buffaloover the past five years. Almost half of the calls involved missing-person reports.

He defended the department's practice of mixing incorrigible youths -- sent to group homes because their parents couldn't control them -- with teen-age criminals, who are there because the courts sent them.

The U.S. Justice Department frowns on the policy, as do many other states, including Florida, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, which have banned the practice. The belief is convicted teen-agers have a negative influence on other youngsters.

Disagreed that Erie County judges have no confidence in the group homes. He said judges don't send youths to group homes in Buffalo because private group homes, some hundreds of miles away, may offer a program better suited for a certain youth -- not because the judge doesn't like the Buffalo homes.

Disputed that New York City-area teen-agers are being sent to the Buffalo group homes.

Dunston said only one youth from New York City was sent to Buffalo last year. He noted he banned the practice after visiting Buffalo in 1988.

The ban, however, applied only to New York City's five boroughs. Several youths from surrounding counties, including Nassau and Westchester, were sent to Buffalo, as well as those from other counties outside of Western New York, including Dutchess and Rockland counties.

Defended the division's handling of reports that a counselor offered drugs and money to residents in exchange for sex. The division, he said, could not find any residents to confirm the reports. The counselor, however, was transferred to an administrative job in 1987, away from youths, Dunston said.

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