Residents say teens from DHS group home terrorize neighborhood
NEWCASTLE — Joe Harlin put up an electric fence to keep kids from a neighboring group home for troubled boys out of his yard.
"Private Property, No Trespassing," reads a black and orange sign posted in front of his house.
Harlin said he's had nothing but problems with the teenage boys living next door since Bison Creek Treatment Services group home opened in April.
"I would understand if a ball got tossed over the fence every once in awhile, but it's bricks and trash can lids — I get upset," Harlin said.
He recently caught one boy taking packages out of his mailbox. Some of the teens have taunted and thrown rocks at his dog, he said.
Since Bison Creek opened inside a renovated nursing home facility, residents and business owners say teenage boys from the group home have run amok in this semi-rural neighborhood off State Highway 9.
The home is under contract with the state Department of Human Services to house and care for teenage boys with severe emotional and behavioral problems.
The McClain County Sheriff's Office and Newcastle Police Department frequently respond to multiple calls a day related to the group home — everything from vandalism to attempted suicide, according to police records.
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In a memo to local law enforcement dated Nov. 27, police Lt. Toby Garver said he believes Bison Creek is a public nuisance and a threat to his officers' safety.
"We have received calls from a juvenile threatening to kill staff and other juveniles with a large piece of glass; to 5 or 6 juveniles threatening to kill staff; to 4 or 5 juveniles attacking a staff member; to juveniles walking down the middle of Hwy 9 into oncoming traffic," Garver wrote.
State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, said his constituents are fed up with problems from Bison Creek. Cleveland has met with DHS officials about the group home, but he isn't encouraged.
"My opinion is that it's very mismanaged," Cleveland said. "I don't think my constituents or anyone should be afraid to go out in their own yard."
The group home houses 16 teenage boys in DHS custody because of abuse or neglect. Bison Creek Treatment Services is privately operated, but has a contract with DHS. The boys go to school, and get job training and counseling at the home.
Paula Grossman, owner of the nearby Countryside Junk store, said she has had ongoing problems with teens from the group home running across the four-lane highway to break things and steal from her shop.
In July, two boys ages 17 and 13 hot-wired Grossman's pickup, crashed it into her brick mailbox and drove it three miles. The truck was totaled. The older boy was charged with a crime and is now in custody of the Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs.
Boys from the home have also broken into her store, smashed a glass display case and took the coins inside, Grossman said.
"They can walk in and walk out whenever they want to," she said. "It's serious whenever they are stealing stuff. Nobody is held responsible and somebody is going to get hurt."
Robert Cornelius, executive director of Bison Creek Treatment Services, said there's little staff can do to keep teenage boys from running away, because Bison Creek is a group home, not a prison.
"I think that people sometimes have the notion we are like a jail or a detention center and that is not the case," Cornelius said. "Our boys are not in the Department of Corrections. We don't have high fences, we're just a home."
Part of the problem is that DHS has few places to send troubled adolescent boys in state custody.
There's only 32 beds in the state for boys with severe behavioral problems like the teens at Bison Creek, said Tom Bates, special child welfare adviser to the governor at DHS.
At least two private group home providers have ended contracts with the state over the past year. The cash-strapped state just isn't able to pay group home operators well enough to stay open in some cases, Bates said.
"Our options are becoming incredibly limited," he said. "It's very difficult to get providers to do this work for what we are paying them."
In an ideal situation, DHS would place the troubled boys in smaller group homes — with just four to six residents each — but that would take money and resources the state doesn't currently have, he said.
DHS is looking at ways to improve the situation at Bison Creek and the surrounding neighborhood, Bates said. The state is helping Bison Creek staff members get more training, as well as seeing that the facility is offering teens there more structured activities to keep them busy and out of trouble.
Cornelius said he understands the group home's neighbors are frustrated with the situation. Bison Creek plans to hold a community open house in coming months to help open the lines of communication between the group home and the rest of the neighborhood, he said.
Bison Creek would also welcome people from the community to volunteer with the group home and mentor some of the teenage boys there, Cornelius said.
"Help us work with these youth," he said, "because they are going to be out in the community."