"If he rushes, kick that ass! Kick that ass!” The jacked-up voices of teenaged boys jumped the back wall into Donna’s yard. Then came the sound of scraping feet and the unmistakable dull smacks of fists finding skin. “Swing, Carrot Top! Swing! Swing! Swing!” one boy screamed, using a nickname Donna recognized. “If he rush you, kick his ass.”
Then a voice yelled, “All right, y’all reset. Round 2. Fight!”
That was in July. Donna — a normally easygoing blond woman — had become accustomed to hearing havoc next door. For nine years, she has lived next to Crescent House, a Fort Lauderdale group home among the facilities described in an August New Times investigation. At the property at 1135 NW Seventh Ave. and others in Broward, New Times found lax oversight and hundreds of police visits. Drugs, weapons, and gang activity were all reported in homes where kids were supposed to find safe havens.
Living near Crescent was a nerve-snapping burden for the neighbors. “It was awful,” Donna says, recalling the overheard brawl. “‘Menacing’ is the right word for it. Most of the neighbors are also scared.”
Though residents of South Middle River say they have complained about Crescent House for years to no avail, the city is now apparently rolling up its sleeves, readying to shove the facility out of operation. Fort Lauderdale’s code enforcement office and the city attorney’s office have in the past six weeks jumped into action with fines and code violations.
“What you have there is absolute chaos,” says Dean Trantalis, city commissioner for the neighborhood. “We’ve just finally said enough is enough — we want the facility closed down.”
Crescent House comprises three modest single-story buildings clustered on the property. It is one of six Broward and Palm Beach residential group-care facilities operated by Chrysalis Health, a private for-profit health-care company based in Fort Lauderdale. The property has been owned by the state since 1984 and operated by Chrysalis since 2002.
Currently, it operates as a shelter for 12-to-17-year-olds, up to 15 to 30 at a time. According to the program’s director of residential services, Kristen Stablein, the ratio of “awake and alert” staffers at the facility is one trained personnel for every four residents — which is above the state-required ratio of one staff member for every six residents.
“These are children who are abandoned and neglected,” Stablein says. “The success of a group home is to make them as home-like as possible, so it has to be in a residential area. We have to normalize their lives for the greatest success.”
But according to homeowners, Crescent has ruined the neighborhood. As Exhibit A, they point to photos they’ve snapped of boys hopping the wall at night to wander the streets. They also have pictures showing residents hoisting a girl over the wall and into the facility, which is technically all male. And they have discovered hundreds of tiny plastic baggies — the kind used for crack cocaine — littering the area.
“When you’re driving up the street, the kids jump in front of your vehicle,” says Sal Gatanio, a nearby homeowner. “They stop right there and just stare you down. And you can’t go anywhere because they’ll keep moving in front of your car, so you’re barricaded in.” Whenever Gatanio tries to say something to the kids or snap a photo of the threatening behavior, he says they pelt his car with rocks.
“I’m from New York. I’ve seen the South Bronx — I’ve seen the ghetto, the slums. And I’ve never felt as threatened,” he says. “Everybody on this street lives in fear for their person and their property. Every. Single. Day.”
Tim Emerson, who owns three properties nearby with his husband, says Crescent House kids taunt him almost daily when he passes. “They’ll yell, ‘Fag!’ or ‘What you looking at? You want to suck my dick?’ when I drive by,” Emerson says.
Next door to Crescent, Donna — who asked that her last name not be used — says she is under siege. She hears basketball games and hollering well past midnight. “We are truly concerned about the safety of everyone living around and near the center,” she says.
Emails show that residents have been complaining since at least 2009. Fort Lauderdale has also been trying to jump into the situation. In 2012, City Manager Lee Feldman wrote to the state Department of Children and Families, pointing out that in just a year, “there had been 58 arrests of juvenile offenders that reside at the Crescent House.” Two months later, the city, state, and Crescent staff sat down to hash out an action plan pledging curfew checks and better communication.
Surprisingly, that same year, Crescent House earned glowing marks from the agency tasked with monitoring the facility. ChildNet, the $158 million nonprofit parent company that handles all group homes and foster care for the state in Broward and Palm Beach counties, subcontracts with Chrysalis. In May 2012, a ChildNet team gave the facility a perfect score on an evaluation, making no note of the issues in the neighborhood. A report said it was “clean and free of safety hazards” and that none of the children discharged from the shelter left “due to undesirable, inappropriate, or disruptive behavior.”
(ChildNet has its own problems. Two lawsuits working through Broward Circuit Court contend the organization allowed sexual abuse at facilities run by subcontractors. In one suit, an unidentified mentally disabled teen alleges he was repeatedly assaulted by another boy over four months. In a lawsuit filed in May 2015, a boy under the age of 12 was allegedly molested for nine months after the a subcontractor working with ChildNet placed him in a foster home. ChildNet did not respond to written questions for this article by press time.)
At Crescent House, things have worsened in recent years. City records indicate that from January 2014 to June 2015, kids from Crescent were arrested 138 times — for 74 felonies and 64 misdemeanors. Between December 2014 and this past June 2015, there were 384 calls for police service to the property.
So now the city appears to be taking action. In August, New Times published its investigation into the lack of accountability and oversight in the group home system. Neighbors doubled their efforts, and Commissioner Trantalis agreed enough was enough.
“A couple months ago, they started throwing rocks at a fellow who was renting a home next door,” Trantalis explains. “When he complained, they tried to rough him up. There is absolutely no supervision.
“I took a tour of the facility a couple years ago, and it seemed clean and a pleasant environment. But the reality is that the facility is not intended for juvenile delinquents.” The commissioner says the Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to place children with antisocial behavior and criminal issues in the center rather than find them suitable placement in facilities designed specifically to handle such kids. “They’ve just been packing them into Crescent House. The state has basically abdicated their responsibility to the children.”
But Trantalis is synched with his constitutes. “This is an emerging neighborhood. We’ve had a lot of issues in the past, and we’ve overcome a lot of them. Now they have the right to the quiet enjoyment of their homes.”
In September, city code enforcement inspectors found 20 violations at Crescent. Emergency exit lights didn’t work. Windows and doors were improperly blocked. Doors couldn’t be opened from the inside. Illegal double-keyed deadbolts were used. Work had been done on the building without the proper permits. Circuits failed to meet manufacturers’ criteria. In total, if the facility doesn’t correct the violations by October 27, it faces up to $3,000 a day in fines.
Ed Lacasa, the chief operations officer and general counsel for Crescent operator Chrysalis , says the company is more than happy to fix the violations. But he says the code enforcement is obviously part of the large full-court press. “We’re starting to get heavy code enforcement. It’s out of the ordinary and unusual for them to be this intense,” he says. “We know that this is the product of the neighbors complaining about this facility being in the neighborhood.”
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Lacasa says Crescent has made every effort to work with the neighbors — the neighbors have simply refused to play along.
Indeed, the city is pulling out all the stops. In August, the city served Crescent with a notice of violations well beyond building specs. An August 31 memo penned by Fort Lauderdale city attorneys claims Crescent’s location isn’t zoned for a residential group home. “The city views this case as a violation of the permitted uses,” says Chaz Adams, a city spokesperson. “The property... constitutes a nuisance.”
On October 15, a special magistrate will hear the city’s arguments at a 9 a.m. meeting at City Hall.
Crescent’s Lacasa remains confident he can defend the home. “This facility has been there for 30 years,” he says. “We continue to do our best... The kids need the neighbors.”