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October 05. 2011 12:12AM

Antrim Girls Shelter announces closure

ANTRIM — A drop in referrals from the state has led to a decision by the Massachusetts-based Lutheran Social Services to close the Antrim Girls Shelter and School, the only girls-only shelter in the state.

“It's really unfortunate and I think the impact will be a negative one on the opportunities for girls in the entire state,” said Randa Tenney, shelter and school program manager.

Maggie Bishop, director for Division of Juvenile Justice Services, said the drop in referrals is a direct result of a new approach that has reduced the number of children in the system by 50 percent.

Bishop said Social Services now looks for “natural placement — family, relatives, godparents, neighbors.”

“If it can't be mom and dad, it should be grandma or aunt and uncle,” Bishop said. “Even a foster home is better than a residential facility.”

The change is having a negative effect on shelters and residential programs across the state, Bishop said.

“We have three shelters in the state right now, and none of them have enough placements to sustain them over a long period of time,” she said.

The Antrim Girls Shelter is one of three adolescent shelters in the state. The other two are run by the North American Family Group — the Midway Shelter for boys in Bradford and the co-ed North Country Shelter in Jefferson.

Tenney said that seven years ago the Antrim shelter was approached by the state and asked to expand its program to accommodate 15 girls at a time. With support from the community, they expanded the building to create new dorm rooms, an activities room, a state-of-the-art classroom and computer lab, and a renovated kitchen.

But now the state is “simply not sending kids to the shelter,” Tenney said.

The state's shift to the new system began five years ago, Bishop said. Instead of being in foster homes or residential programs for years, youths are in the system for just months before they are integrated back into their communities, she said.

“For the kids it's good news,” Bishop said. “It means that kids are spending more time with families and making healthy adult connections ... This is not just New Hampshire. Every state has moved in this direction because it's the right thing to do.”

The Legislature also recently narrowed the definition of a Child In Need of Services petition, Bishop said. The court petitions are more narrowly defined to apply to children who appear to be a danger to themselves, family or community. Bishop said that narrower definition excludes children who are truant from school, for example.

Lutheran Social Services established the shelter in 1987 and has worked with hundreds of troubled girls, 11 to 17. There are five girls in the program now.

“We regret having to make this painful decision,” Heather Feltman, president and CEO of the Lutheran agency, said in a statement on Monday. “Especially after our supporters advocated so energetically last year to keep the shelter open. But we cannot sustain the financial burden of continuing this program.”

According to the statement, Lutheran Social Services has lost more than $140,000 over the last quarter and “cannot withstand further losses.”

Tenney has been working at the shelter for the past 19 years.

“Because I've been here so long I have often had opportunities to have contact with former residents and what I know is that many of the girls have benefited from the program,” she said. “They have gotten their young lives straightened out, gotten college degrees, gotten married and gone on and done well.”


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