Plan to bring youth offenders to Dobbs Ferry worries some

Westchester County's plan to transfer a group of youthful offenders deemed to be nonviolent to a residential treatment center in the village has created anxiety among some residents and local officials, who fear the children could wreak havoc in the community.

Children's Village, on Walgrove Avenue, has agreed to take 24 youngsters from St. Christopher's, which lost its contract with the county over a record-keeping scandal. St. Christopher's, also based in Dobbs Ferry, has been housing the youngsters at its Valhalla campus for more than a decade.

The Dobbs Ferry school superintendent and village officials said yesterday that the children could be more volatile than the others on the Children's Village campus, and were particularly concerned that the agency was planning to house half the youngsters just 100 feet from Springhurst Elementary School.

"I don't want Children's Village to turn into a Woodfield Cottage, and neither does my community," Superintendent Sidney Freund said, referring to the county's juvenile jail in Valhalla. "The social and criminal profiles of these children is unclear."

Responding to the uproar, Children's Village agreed yesterday to keep the children at a more remote area of the campus, while trying to calm fears that they could escape and threaten the community.

"We have no reason to believe that these children would in any way increase the risk to the community," said Jeremy Kohomban, president and chief executive officer of Children's Village. "If there are children that are referred to this program that do not fit the profile of safety that we address here, we would work with the county to shift them to a more appropriate facility."

The Dobbs Ferry school board has called a meeting this morning to discuss the arrangement.

The children would arrive March 15 on referrals from Family Court for minor offenses such as truancy and fighting. Children's Village would provide them lodging and psychiatric evaluations that would help the court determine future placement.

The boys and girls, up to 18 years old, would live in separate dormitories fitted with secure windows and alarmed doorways but no guards or fences typical of a detention center. Original plans called for the girls to be housed in Gatehouse cottage, next to the elementary school.

Some village officials learned of the $2.4 million deal between Children's Village and the county at a Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday. "I've gotten a few upset telephone calls from residents," Trustee Paula Dambroff said. "I'm trying to get as much information as I can."

Josephine Tisi, who lives next to Children's Village, also wanted to know more. "You want to know about the people who live next door to you," the 81-year-old homeowner said. "Sure it concerns me, but what can I do?"

Trustee Lyle Miller questioned if the center's counselors could handle adolescent offenders and safely confine them in their quarters. He said juveniles with records should not live so close to an elementary school.

"Unless we can be convinced that this does not pose a significant threat, I'll support taking any action we can to stop this or turn this back," he said.

Police Chief George Longworth said he had asked for a copy of the county's contract with Children's Village to learn the types of crimes the young people had committed. He said his department needed to know if the children were considered "held in custody," because police would have to treat them as escapees if they fled. "When I hear people who are not in law enforcement speak about 'nonviolent' offenses, I'd like to know to what they're referring," he said. "Sexual abuse can be a misdemeanor."

Police already routinely respond to Children's Village on reports of assaults against staff members and residents, Longworth said. One of the most serious assaults came in 2002, when a 16-year-old resident was charged with slitting another's throat.

Shawn Cohen and Rebecca Baker Erwin
26 January 2006


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