Not in my neighborhood.
That's the clear message delivered by many Cherry Hill residents this month to the proposed opening of two group homes for preteens with behavioral and emotional problems.
Following a testy meeting attended by hundreds of people at the Township Council room last week, the state Department of Children and Families has been mulling over the plan.
DCF Commissioner Kevin M. Ryan, who has been out of the state on business, is expected to be briefed on the issues tomorrow before deciding what action - if any - will be taken by his department.
Ryan "will make a decision along with the local officials," DCF spokesman Tom Bell said yesterday. "We have a contract to provide the services. Those services can be provided in other places."
The homes - which would be run by a for-profit company called New Jersey MENTOR - require no special zoning approval since each one would have no more than five children, state and local officials said.
MENTOR has leases on houses on Tanforan Drive in Cherry Hill Estates and West Valleybrook Road in the township's Brookfield section. Ten children, ranging from 8 to 12 years old, would come to the two locations. None has moved in yet.
Last week's meeting was called by the township to provide information about the group homes to the community, which was awash in rumors.
Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt (D., Camden), who attended with Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden) and other state officials, said yesterday that she and Greenwald planned to meet with "some of the stronger voices in the community to talk this through."
"I can understand why people are up in arms," she said. "Some were extremely vocal. I don't think the Department of Children and Families wants to bring children into a community where they will not be embraced."
Lampitt said residents "need to understand how they fit into all this. They need guidance since this is a new venture, treading on a new path. Many communities have embraced group homes."
The assemblywoman said she was not convinced that companies such as MENTOR should be required to alert communities where they are planning to open a group home.
"You just want people to do it, not mandate it," she said. "You could be creating a firestorm."
In a letter to Gov. Corzine, Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt said "a disclosure exception should not continue to be the rule for these types of businesses, and I believe all homeowners deserve more rights."
He asked Corzine to "support us in our request that the state provide notice and information of group homes . . . "
Yesterday, Platt said he was watching the issue with other local elected officials "and will continue to maintain an open line of communication to the community and keep them abreast of all developments in this case."
Cherry Hill resident Amy Moore, who has three children and lives three doors away from the proposed site on West Valleybrook, said, "I'm not comfortable with homes being located here."
"On the other side, I do understand these are children that need help. I have compassion for that. But I have to worry about the safety of my children."
The children in group homes are supervised 24 hours a day, said state and MENTOR officials. They would go to school and receive counseling while learning other skills that would help them eventually move to their families or into foster care or adoption.
"Our first priority is the safety of the children we care for," MENTOR official Lisa Coscia said yesterday. "We want the children we serve to succeed and being accepted into the fabric of the community is an important element of their success."
Coscia said MENTOR was "concerned that a precedent would be set if these homes aren't allowed to open.
"That said, our ultimate responsibility is to the children we serve and we would not move them into a community where we were not confident that they would be safe," she said.
"We hope, and believe, that if these children move into Cherry Hill they will be welcomed and embraced by the community."