SOUTHINGTON — For teen girls who’ve experienced abuse or neglect and been removed from their homes, The Bridge shelter tries to foster stability.
That means assigning chores, teaching the girls to cook and showing unconditional love, according to executive director Margaret Hann.
“We’ve had girls who told us, ‘This is the first time somebody remembered my birthday,’” she said.
The presence of the Birchcrest Drive shelter, called the Winifred House, among single-family homes isn’t welcome by some neighbors. They’ve started a petition to have the state Department of Children and Families move the home, saying runaway teens and police calls are disruptive to the neighborhood. Town officials have joined the effort and are considering an ordinance that would fine The Bridge for “excessive” police calls. The town has also asked for help from state and federal lawmakers.
The Bridge operates three similar homes around the state. Hann said the group responded to a DCF request for proposal in 2007 when it started leasing the Southington home. The terms of the company’s contract with the state specify that the program be located in a neighborhood and should be “indistinguishable” from the surrounding area. Placement among other homes is intentional, Hann said, and part of the effort to prepare the girls for foster care or a return to their homes.
“Our main focus is to stabilize young women and get them ready for their next place,” she said.
Other than the installation of a sprinkler system, time clocks for employees and exterior cameras the home hasn’t changed much. Many of the changes were prompted or suggested by neighbors, such as widening the driveway so workers don’t have to park on the street.
Interior bedrooms house either one or two girls. There are offices on both the first and second floor. A recent re-arrangement created more single-bed rooms which Hann and Michael Rulnick, residential services director, said helps avoid conflicts.
The home’s backyard has a stockade fence and arborvitaes provide screening in the front. Plantings are also to provide privacy for the home. Hann said a neighbor has cameras trained on the house and at times watches the shelter through binoculars.
Some problems are inevitable, due to the girls’ backgrounds and the difficulty of adjusting to a new environment, according to Hann. She hoped neighbors would understand what the teens were going through and refrain from videotaping.
“For some of these girls, this is the first time out of their home,” Hann said.
Bob Sargeant, a Birchcrest Drive neighbor who organized the petition, declined to comment for the story. He said the neighbors were waiting for a response from DCF officials and would withhold comment on the issue for 30 days.
Hann said she’s been to numerous meetings with neighbors and accommodated every reasonable request. Some neighbors have responded with verbal abuse, which she’s reported to police.
“That’s not being a good neighbor,” Hann said. “You’ve got to meet me half way. Stop videotaping our kids, calling them the n-word.”
The references were to an April 2017 incident that started with a suspicious person call by Winifred House staff. William Palmieri, deputy police chief, said when police arrived they found two young men in the neighborhood who were trying to visit a friend staying at the shelter. Some of the girls became agitated with the police, which led to shouting in the street.
By that time, some neighbors had come outside and one started videotaping a girl with his cell phone, which led the girl to become more irate.
Palmieri said his officers didn’t record any racial slurs during the ensuing argument between the two. The neighbor said the girl called him racially-charged names, and Hann said her staff told her the neighbor did the same to the girl.
Palmieri said his department tries to diffuse these situations and mediate.
“We’re trying to bridge a relationship here,” he said.
The neighbor denied saying any racial slurs and said he only videotaped the girl to document the disruption and provide proof of his claims.
In meetings following the incident, Palmieri said he reminded neighbors not to enflame the situation. He hasn’t heard any complaints of racial slurs since.
With frustration on both sides, police act as mediators even in cases where no laws are being broken.
“In this day and age, we’ve become more than just the enforcement arm. We’re a counselor, we’re a mediator,” Palmieri said. “If we don’t mediate the problem, it could create more work or more problems than we have right now. It’s the right thing to do.”