Court upholds residential rights of child in therapeutic family

By Gloria Shephard

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A legal judgment of tremen­dous and far reaching signifi­cance in the field of services to children has been handed down in Dane County, Wisconsin. The right of the emotionally dis­turbed child who is receiving treatment in a family style set­ting to live in any residential area that would be available to him were he living at home with his own family has been recognized in law.

On May 15, 1972, Dane County Reserve Circuit Court Judge George R. Currie—a Judge of the Supreme Court of Wiscon­sin until he reached the compul­sory retirement age—ruled that a Browndale therapeutic family caring for five or fewer emotion­ally disturbed children "qualifies as a single family dwelling under the ordinance and requires no site approval under the ordinance in order to operate in Dane County".7 With this decision. Judge Currie reversed an earlier ruling by the Dane County Board of Adjustment which Browndale had appealed.

It was Judge Currie's "ulti­mate conclusion that the Board's interpretation of the ordinance— that Browndale -homes, re­gardless of the number of unre­lated persons living together therein, cannot qualify as single family dwellings of the ordi­nance—cannot be sustained on any rational basis". He found that the Board's March 17 de­cision requiring site approval for Browndale homes "is an incor­rect and therefore illegal inter­pretation of the ordinance".'

Pointing out that "the guiding principle of the Brown-dale home is to duplicate as nearly as possible what a child living in such a home would get if living with his own family" and that "90 per cent of those discharged are rehabilitated so as to be able to return to their families or make their way in life" and that "this is a much higher percentage than has been achieved by child welfare institu­tions operated on an institutional basis" Judge Currie recognized that "the welfare of emotionally disturbed children living in Browndale homes requires that such homes be located where other private families reside and not be confined to a district

zoned as commercial or indus­trial. A zoning ordinance which does not permit such houses to be located in any district where families usually reside would in the Court's opinion be unconsti­tutional. A State interest is in­volved because the Division of Family Services places children in these homes and a zoning or­dinance which excludes them from all residential districts would be unconstitutional."'

In his judgment, Judge Currie cited the need for homes of the Browndale type. "The present six homes in Dane County are inadequate to meet the referrals from the state and there is at present a waiting list of 19 children. It is projected that the operation in Dane County will have 100 to 105 children by the end of 1972."7

A discussion of zoning laws seems incongruous in the context of the rehabilitation of emotion­ally disturbed children. However, out-dated, too rigid or incorrect interpretations of zoning laws can prevent, or at least seriously delay, the setting up and opera­tion of much needed services to children. Browndale has been fighting the zoning battle since 1966 when .the first Browndale therapeutic families in the com­munity were established in New­market, a small Ontario town 30 miles north of Toronto. And as the trend away from large hos­pitals and institutions towards community treatment programs grows stronger, more and more people in the helping professions are finding their treatment plans thwarted by zoning regulations or, rather, the interpretation of zoning regulations, by local poli­ticians or officials. One Dane County treatment centre which expanded its operations to in­clude a group home for adoles­cent boys and girls in the city of Madison, looked at 40 houses before they found a suitable one in an area where the zoning regulations would not exclude them. Difficulties caused by zoning and its interpretation are consuming time, effort and money that could be better spent in direct services to children.

Zoning regulations are com­plex but their primary purpose is to restrict certain activities to certain areas. Their intent, pre­sumably, is to prevent the noise, pollution and traffic congestion generated by such operations as factories, large stores, hotels and theatres from intruding into resi­dential areas. The permitted use in a residential area is phrased "single family dwelling" because that is the way the majority of people live—with their own families.

This wording would cause no problem, says Richard C. Glesner, Browndale's attorney, if the people interpreting zoning laws concerned themselves with land use instead of labels. "As long as I, walking down the street, cannot see any physical difference between a house con­taining a Browndale therapeutic family and any other house on the street, that's a permissable land use." And as Judge Currie pointed out: "Each Browndale home is housed in a private dwelling the exterior of which is no different than other private homes in the neighborhood. No signs are erected on the premises or affixed to the home to indi­cate that it is a home for emo­tionally disturbed children."7

People who get hung up on labels also say Browndale thera­peutic families cannot locate in single family residential areas be­cause Browndale is a "commer­cial enterprise" and an "institu­tion". But, as Attorney Glesner again points out, the land use is not affected by the fact that Browndale International owns the houses in which the thera­peutic families—operated by the Wisconsin based company, In­volvement Centers—live any more than the land use is affect­ed when large corporations like General Motors or IBM purchase houses for the use of their em­ployees or visitors. And although Browndale is sometimes referred to as a child treatment "insti­tution"—because the language of classification in government de­partments does not keep pace with the advances made in the treatment field—Browndale is not an institution; it is an organ­ization that operates single family sized treatment units in the community.

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Browndale's founder and Involvement Centers' director, John L. Brown, is not a man who concerns himself with labels, classifications or definitions. As he stated at the panel discussion on Child Oriented Treatment Centers organized by the Com­munity Treatment Committee in Madison on May 31st: "All treat­ment models are man-made and can be man-changed and if we focus on the needs of the human child we will design a model most meaningful to him."

Twenty years experience in the residential treatment of emotionally disturbed children has taught John Brown that the model most meaningful to the child is the family in nature. By that he means the average family in the community; the kind of family that most of us grew up in.

A small percentage of parents are unable to parent their children successfully because of their own problems or the partic­ular strains and stresses they are subjected to. And because most families who struggle with prob­lems in relationship tend to iso­late themselves from the rest of the community, a child can develop severe behavioral and ad­justment problems before he comes to the attention of the child care authorities.

Even so, it is in most cases preferable to provide the whole family with help that will enable the child to remain at home, rather than remove him from his family. It is always harder to get funds for this type of preventive work than for traditional residen­tial treatment, but many organi­zations, including Browndale and the Children's Treatment Center in Madison, are providing the resources that prevent the break­down of the family and removal of the child.

However, if a child does have to be removed from his family temporarily, which is the better placement for him? A large institution where com­pletely unfamiliar environment and structure will augment the pain and confusion he is already suffering as a result of sudden separation from his family? Or a house that is not unlike the house he has been living in and which contains approximately the same number of adults and children he is used to relating to?

A community based family style treatment facility similar to the Browndale therapeutic family, or the homes run by the Family Services Division of Wis­consin's Department of Health and Social Services, lessens the child's anxieties and difficulties in adjustment on first coming into treatment. Such a facility also encourages an individual ap- proach to each child and the establishment of caring, involved relationships with adults which provide a bridge to recovery. And when the child is ready to leave the program, he has no dif­ficult transition to make because he has learned to adjust to and deal with community standards and real life situations, not the artificial structures of institu­tional life which have no reality outside the institution.

Therefore, when politicians or government officials manipu­late zoning laws to keep com­munity based treatment facilities out of normal residential areas, they are doing something they have no right to do. They are interfering in the treatment of emotionally disturbed children— an area about which they know very little and apparently care even less, for they make little attempt to acquaint themselves with the facts. Community based treatment is not a passing fad, nor is it a startlingly new con­cept. It is a natural progression in the development of services to people and information about it is available to anyone who is interested.

This power over where chil­dren in need of help may live, threatens every parent. For emo­tional disturbance is not con­fined to any particular section of the population. No one is im­mune. Some people handle prob­lems better than others, but a sudden change in circumstances can affect anyone's ability to cope with stress. I would ask each reader of this article to take a moment to think of his own children. If, for any reason, they had to be removed temporarily from your home, would you want them to live in a less desir­able residential area than the one they are now living in?

During the zoning fight in the Town of Cottage Grove, Dane County, many parents recognized this basic right of children and were not afraid to stand up and be counted. Barber Harry Wolfe, with nine children of his own, was one. He said of the children temporarily in treat­ment in Browndale: "These chil­dren are human and they have to live somewhere." Mr. Wolfe stood up at a town meeting and told his fellow residents that it could easily be their children who, one day, might need treat­ment. He made himself very unpopular because he brought into the open the issue that lay behind much of the opposition to Browndale in Cottage Grove-racism.

That many of the children and some of the staff in Brown-dale are Black was an issue that had been mentioned many times in private but never commented on in public until Mr. Wolfe lay bare this hypocrisy. The reaction was a great deal of personal abuse. "My phone rang off the wall," he said later. "One woman told me she'd like to come over and punch me on the nose. But I told her if she did, it wouldn't be the first time for me. I'm not afraid of anyone."

Ironically, what brought Browndale into Cottage Grove was the organization's long estab­lished and internationally recog­nized record of success with chil­dren other agencies had labeled the population. No one is im­mune. Some people handle prob­lems better than others, but a sudden change in circumstances can affect anyone's ability to cope with stress. I would ask each reader of this article to take a moment to think of his own children. If, for any reason, they had to be removed temporarily from your home, would you want them to live in a less desir­able residential area than the one they are now living in?

Feb. 24th edition of the Deer-field Independent "deplored the hooting, hollering and name call­ing". The Monona Community Herald reported (Feb. 24} that the meeting "occasionally degen­erated into a shoutdown of John Brown's attempts to answer legit­imate questions from some of the town's residents. . .Un­daunted, Brown, trying to re­main calm, went on answering questions for those who cared to grant him freedom of speech."

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Objections to the presence of Browndale therapeutic fam­ilies tend to centre around the following surface issues: that school costs will increase and property values decline, that Browndale has no business "sneaking into" a community and that the presence of these children who have been classified emotionally disturbed and are re­ceiving treatment will in some way contaminate this "problem-free" community.

Peter Smith was, appar­ently, the only Cottage Grove board member who took the trouble to check with state offi­cials about school costs and he reported that the state would pay normal state aid for any Browndale children placed in local schools and the difference between state aid and the actual cost of education. John Brown repeatedly assured the local resi­dents and the township officials that Browndale does not ask local schools to make special ar­rangements for Browndale chil­dren. The children unable to cope with the ordinary class­rooms in community schools are taught by Browndale staff until they are.

Property values have never gone down in the vicinity of Browndale homes. On the con­trary, they tend to rise and most certainly would do so in Cottage Grove because of the improve­ments being made to the existing houses to bring them into line with state regulations.

As for "sneaking in", all necessary steps were taken by Browndale in Cottage Grove, in­cluding checking the zoning with the county zoning administrator, obtaining the necessary health permits and license approval and furnishing proof of ability to raise mortgage financing. Brown-dale does not announce the ar­rival of a therapeutic family in the local paper or with a notice on the gate. First consideration is given to the feelings of the chil­dren. A Browndale therapeutic family moves into a neighbor­hood and makes contacts with the neighbors in the same way that any other family does. How would Cottage Grove residents or board members enjoy having a label hung around their necks?

Finally, of course, emotion­al disturbance isn't something local children will "catch" from the children living in Browndale homes, like measles. Neither do children living in Browndale homes bring emotional distur­bance into a community. There are many more disturbed persons living in the community— unlabelled and untreated—than there are in treatment facilities. As for causing problems or dam­age, these children are not being dumped in a house and left. They are in a treatment program which requires that the staff know where they are and what they are doing. As John Haugh of the Capital Times reported in his May 20th article: "During the entire court battle (the) one home operated in Cottage Grove without incident."

It was incredibly insulting for Cottage Grove Chairman Eugene Skaar to say (as reported in the Feb. 12th edition of the Capital Times): "People are con- cerned about the morals of these kids. With a mixed group of boys and girls, black and white, who's going to say what's going to go on in these houses?" What is "going on" in Browndale houses is the successful rehabilitation of children other agencies have given up on. Rehabilitation by methods that have proven so suc­cessful founder John L. Brown and Browndale staff members have been invited to speak at child care conferences and semi­nars all over the world; and ex­perts in the child treatment field come from countries all over the world to Browndale facilities for first hand observation of the therapeutic family model of treatment; and Browndale now operates branches in three Cana­dian provinces, two states in the United States and an affiliated branch will be opened in Holland this year.

"In Wisconsin itself, in Cum­berland, reception to our  pro­gram has been outstandingly warm and considerate. When we wanted to set up a camping pro­gram there this summer, we pre­sented that community with very much the same kind of informa­tion we have presented in other communities we have entered. The business, political and social leaders in the community and the police seem strong enough and se­cure enough in their own lives that a program for emotionally disturbed children doesn't upset them/' says Mr. Brown.

However, answering objec­tions such as those listed above with facts doesn't help much be­cause the unwillingness of those objecting to listen to facts reveals an irrationality behind their op­position. It does not seem pos­sible that the presence of four disturbed children living in one house in a community of 1,000 could arouse such fear and anger as was expressed by some Cot­tage Grove residents.

Other residents were able to look at the situation rationally. Mrs. Priscilla Stensaas said: "I didn't know anything about John Brown or his treatment methods but I phoned around, even as far as Canada, and I heard nothing but good about him." Mrs. Stensaas said of that Feb. 21st meeting in Cottage Grove town hall: "If a stranger had walked into the room and heard some of those adults ar­guing about the children, he would have thought the adults were the ones who were disturb­ed. Certain ones were getting up and saying the most hateful things. Suddenly, I found myself on my feet telling them they were just looking for the worse. I was surprised, when I sat down how many people clapped. I real­ized that many of the people there were in favor of Browndale but weren't speaking up."

After that meeting, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Nondahl of Cottage Grove wrote to Mr. Brown, offer­ing their apologies for the treat­ment he had received and saying that they thought the town chairman and attorney should have instituted some proceedings to insure that only township res­idents put their views forward at the meeting. "It was very un­ethical for non-residents of the township of Cottage Grove, who were in the majority, to have interfered in our business. . .We wish to commend you heartily for your poise, demeanor and gentlemanly behavior in the face of such verbal persecution. We believe this speaks very well on your behalf and that you gained new support from some town­ship residents that evening."

Mrs. Nondahl has worked with retarded children at Central Colony, a large institution in Dane County, and she says: "I think the small family style Browndale has enjoyed warm support from many resi­dents of Cottage Grove from the time the four children were moved in, but the voices of the opposition have tended to be more vociferous.

On March 17th, after a pub­lic hearing at which interested parties—including the attorneys for Browndale and the Town of Cottage Grove—made representa­tions, the Dane County Board of Adjustment issued its decision that said, essentially, that Brown-dale's therapeutic family homes do not qualify as single family dwellings under the Dane County zoning ordinance and therefore could not operate in an A-1 area (farms and single family dwell­ings) until site approval had been obtained from the Dane County Zoning Committee. This was, to say the least, an extraordinary decision because it contradicted the earlier decision arrived at by the zoning administrator of Dane County. The Board of Adjust­ment consists of three district supervisors. They are not law­yers. They usually deal with appeals on erroneous zoning de cisions and requests for variations on zoning regulations of a rela­tively simple kind.

"Site approval" requires a public hearing and while the views of all the residents of a community merit being heard, a public hearing is not the way to accomplish this.

The residential rights of emotionally disturbed children is too important an issue to decide at a public meeting. As Mike Hughes of the Sun Prairie Star put it: "People who go to meet­ings go to vote against things; people who are satisfied with things the way they are stay home and watch television." The decision of where a child who cannot stay with his own family should live should not be left to the discretion of a handful of people who are rarely representa­tive of the community and who, in most cases, know very little about the issue at stake and whose attitudes may be swayed by their own fears or inadequa­cies

Browndale appealed the Board of Adjustment's decision to the Circuit Court and won the appeal. The judgment is repro­duced in full in a supplement being mailed to all subscribers with this issue of Involvement, and available, upon request, to anyone else who would like a copy.

Although the battle is by no means over, recognition in law of the residential rights of disturbed children receiving treatment in a family style facility which is not their own home, is a matter of great satisfaction and encourage­ment for all people who work in community based treatment fac­ilities.

When a treatment centre breaks away from the traditional institutional model and tries to find a more humane, civilized way of caring for emotion­ally disturbed children, it has to struggle with numer­ous regulations drafted with institutions in mind.

For example, Browndale in Wisconsin has to tear up the bathroom floor of every house it puts children into to install a splash board. And the normal toilet seats found in every family home have to be replaced with spring-up toilet seats that are uncomfortable to use. This is because kids in institu- tions piss on the toilet seat and on the floor and it is considered easier to install spring-up toilet seats and splash boards than teach them how to aim.

Yet, when you take a child and by giving him individual attention teach him how to use toilet facilities in a civilized manner, you do far more to humanize him than you could with 18 psychiatric conferences. Because the disturbed child wants to think of himself as a normal human being and, if given a chance, will behave like one.

John L. Brown