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Savannah Morning News, Georgia, 3 January 2000
Abuse claims could close Vidalia home for boys
Officials deny allegations of brutal discipline, coverup
By Caitlin Cleary
VIDALIA -- Miles down the pine-lined country roads outside Vidalia lies the Mel Blount Youth Home for wayward boys, founded by hometown hero and former Pittsburgh Steeler Mel Blount.
The 276-acre property is an idyllic, minimalist universe -- no cell phones, no video games, no drugs, alcohol, or other means of escapism. For teen-agers hundreds of miles from their homes, what becomes important is trust, fitness, work and rules.
State officials now think there is a more sinister side to the home, which has won accolades and community support for turning around troubled youths.
The State Department of Human Resources has released the results of an investigation into multiple allegations of abuse at the home. In the report, former residents claim they received severe beatings with sticks and rubber hoses, forced feedings, torturous work details and were denied food and water as punishment.
Residents told investigators that they were made to break large rocks or dig stumps all day long "until the sky was pink," and hoist cinderblocks while running laps. Some boys said they were made to assume a push-up position on the hot asphalt of the parking area and blow all the sand off the area.
According to the report, some residents told of a sort of "code of silence" whereby only boys trusted not to divulge the abuses at the home would be allowed to see and talk to state inspectors and visitors. They alleged that their mail was destroyed, their calls were monitored, and that those with marks on their body had visits with parents canceled by staff.
Others described an incident where the base of a tree was set afire under a boy who couldn't climb high enough.
There is disagreement about whether the reports constitute callous abuse or just strict discipline.
The report says that 28 of 33 residents or former residents interviewed experienced or witnessed what the report termed prohibited discipline, such as corporal punishment, denial of sleep or food, and assignment of excessive work tasks.
Clinton Blount, executive director of the youth home and brother of the football star, declined comment on specific charges. But there was never abuse, he said.
"I have never created any situation that would create harm for a child," he said. "I consider them like my kids. The comfort I get is that those that know our work can tell the real truth of what's going on."
The report's findings may spell the end of the home. The Department of Juvenile Justice has yanked 20 Georgia youths from the home, and subsequently terminated its contract with the facility. There are more than 160 such residential facilities for troubled youth in the state.
The home has requested an appeal hearing on the possible revocation of the home's license. The license revocation is an administrative procedure, according to the Department of Regulatory Services; no criminal charges have been filed.
The hearing date has not been set. Until then, the home is operating with 16 residents.
"Jesus, you are my cornerstone"
For 16 years, Clinton Blount and his staff have taken belligerent, sometimes law-breaking boys and with equal parts discipline, family, and God, made the boys "from the bottom of the stack" into confident, skilled people refocused on their future. For more than 1,000 of them, the Mel Blount Youth Home has been the last choice, the last chance.
A recent visit to the home revealed a clean facility. Everyone seemed busy and happy. The boys at the home were going to get Christmas trees later that day, but right then they were singing.
"Jesus, you are my cornerstone," they sang in the choir rehearsal, swaying and stomping their combat boots in time. "You are my friend when I'm alone."
Alonzo, 17, performed the solo. He has been at the home 10 months now. Alonzo took his GED in August, and is preparing to go to college and major in computers. He wore a T-shirt that read,"Work First."
Clinton Blount talked about the kind of boy who is sent to the youth home.
Typically, their self-esteem is low, and their grade level is three to four levels behind other kids. Some are overweight and out of shape. Some have been selling or using drugs, stealing cars, or sleeping in them.
"He has no skills, he has nothing to offer," Blount said. "He has untidy hair, baggy pants, a bad attitude, profanity, and is out of control."
Boys aged 10 to 18 come to the home from all over the state and the Southeast, Blount said. They are referred by probation and police officers, clergy or desperate parents. The Blount home runs on donations, fees, and reimbursements from the state. The cost can run to $1,800 per month, but depends on the needs of the child and how much the parents can afford, Blount said. The Department of Juvenile Justice pays the youth home $120 per day, per child, for the children they refer there.
"When they come to me, most of them have burnt all bridges, all support, all the interest of the community," Blount said.
The basis of the home's philosophy is to provide a family atmosphere so that the child realizes he can count on someone. Blount mixes in some military-style exercise, such as marching in cadence and calisthenics, along with work and a measure of prayer.
The boys get up at 5 a.m. They start with outside chores, doing the cooking and the cleaning, before they have four to five hours of mandatory schooling, Blount said. They catch fish and cook it, and raise their own beef. They assist with carpentry, wiring, landscaping, farming, and painting to learn the skills they might need.
It is Blount family land. There are no fences or door locks, Blount said. No medications are given to quiet the children. When the boys get frustrated, Blount allows them to box. When they misbehave, they dig stumps for punishment. There is no cussing, smoking, or lying. They must use table manners, do the best at whatever job they're assigned, and wash and pray before eating, Blount said.
The average stay at the Mel Blount Youth Home is from nine to 18 months; some have asked to stay as long as six years.
"Rule violations have occurred"
A November letter from the Georgia Department of Human Resources to the Blount home warned of the state's intent to revoke the home's license. It read, "it has been determined that rule violations have occurred which demonstrate knowing, intentional and reckless disregard for the physical and mental health and safety of children in residence."
It is not the first time the state investigated the home. The state agency imposed fines of $450 and $799 in 1990 and in 1993, for allegedly jeopardizing the health and safety of children in its care. Clinton Blount declined comment on past allegations.
The law requires annual inspections by DHR personnel in all homes that receive state money, and that all complaints get investigated. If the facility has been noncompliant in the past, the state checks on it more often. The investigation of the Mel Blount Youth Home was sparked by a complaint.
"A troubled population"
Jo Cato, director of the DHR's Child Care Licensing Section, which conducted the investigation of the home, said that it is not unusual to hear those kinds of complaints about a home for troubled youth.
"It's not unusual because of the type of kids that are there," Cato said. "It's a troubled population."
Still, to revoke the license of a child care facility is a serious and rare action. Cato said that a license is required if a facility houses more than six children.
Blount said that he was not surprised by the allegations of abuse, either.
"I'm not surprised that a child will make a statement like that," Blount said. "When you have a child fresh out of boot camp what you have is an angry child."
Blount said that most kids need a few months of "settling in" to the program before they can talk to parents and visitors. He denied that any family visits were ever canceled to keep anything quiet. The boys' choir travels around to area events and mingles freely with outsiders.
"Most of the kids are free to talk to anyone," he said. "We encourage them to talk."
The home has many success stories, and many of them come back to visit the home long after they have left.
Duane Hawkins was disruptive and rebellious, sneaking out of his mother's house at night, hanging around with a bad crowd and just sliding by in school. After 22 months at the home, he refocused and is now a freshman at Miles College in Birmingham, Ala., studying to be an orthopedic surgeon. He is currently back at the home -- just visiting during his winter break.
JoAnn O'Keeffe is a registered nurse and certified addiction specialist with 35 years' experience with troubled kids. She has referred many children to the youth home.
"I have never found a more fabulous placement than the Mel Blount home," O'Keeffe said. "it's the best program I've encountered. It should be a model."
She described Clinton Blount as "highly ethical and loving" and said she has been alone with many of the resident boys there. None have spoken of any abuse to her.
"He may use some measures that might seem politically incorrect," O'Keeffe said. "But I feel in order for these kids to change they need very strict discipline."
Rev. Small told of a troubled boy he knew who had been placed in the youth home by the Department of Juvenile Justice. When the allegations were brought against the home, Juvenile Justice removed him from the facility immediately, and dropped him off at his grandmother's home.
Unsure if he could handle the pressures of being in his old environment, the boy tried to call Clinton Blount, then other staff members, to no avail. The boy was later arrested.
"That kid called for help where he thought help would be, and that was Clinton Blount," said Small. "It's scary. These are lives. These are not hypotheticals."
Was questioning "normal and proper?"
Savannah social worker Beverly Gulick said her 17-year-old son Joel was among the former residents questioned about alleged abuses at the home. She claims the teen was questioned improperly, badgered, and his answers taken out of context by Department of Juvenile Justice and DHR officers.
Beverly Gulick said she attended the interview, and was upset by what she witnessed. The Department of Juvenile Justice would neither confirm nor deny she was there, but said parents sometimes are present during questioning.
"The commissioner (Orlando Martinez) stands behind the results of the investigation,' Vickers said. "He believes it was done according to the normal and proper procedures. If parents have concerns about the methodology, they need to share that information with him."
Gulick said she paid to put Joel in the home for about nine months last year. He had been having problems in school and he would sit all day in front of the TV playing video games.
Joel came back from the home more confident, assertive, happy and well fed, Gulick said. She said Joel often asks her to take him back to Vidalia to visit Clinton Blount and kids at the home.
Gulick said she didn't witness the "code of silence" alleged in the report. She was able to talk to her son after the first couple of months of his stay. She visited alone with him and took picnic lunches onto the grounds. She says she has faith that Joel would tell her if he was getting abused.
"I said to him, 'Bubba, is there anything you think about Mr. Blount hurting anyone?' " Gulick said. "And he said, 'No, Mama, they didn't hurt anybody.'"
John Reddan of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs in Savannah is working to regulate and raise the bar for private youth homes and wilderness camps for troubled kids.
A large number of these programs have been cropping up across the country to meet the increasing demand to help kids in trouble. Some camps can run up to $300 per day.
"The state does a pretty good job regulating state programs to meet specification," Reddan said. "But I have a very Darwinian view on the subject. If they cannot serve the children in a safe manner, they'll cease to exist."
Follow-up: 8 May 2000 - Mel Blount Youth Home could lose state license
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