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Home for Little Wanderers expands

Walpole , Massachusetts 11-09-12 The Home for Little Wanderers has new facilities.One of the little wanderers inside room. (Jonathan Wiggs ) Topic: Reporter:

The Boston Globe

Walpole , Massachusetts 11-09-12 The Home for Little Wanderers has new facilities.One of the little wanderers inside room. (Jonathan Wiggs ) Topic: Reporter:

From the road, Longview Farm in Walpole looks like a wealthy private school, with buildings set on 166 acres of fields and woods. Those driving by catch glimpses of an outdoor pool, a small fishing and skating pond, a garden, ropes course, and brand new playground.

But for the 56 children who live or go to school there, the newly expanded program of the Home for Little Wanderers is a place of last resort — a day and boarding school for youths with no place else to go.

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“Our kids have been removed from home because of lack of safety, either from abuse or neglect,” said Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president and chief executive  of the Boston-based Home for Little Wanderers. “These are traumatized kids.”

The children come to Longview Farm to heal, she said, and on Monday her agency will celebrate $18 million in new construction on the property with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The project almost tripled the physical plant — to 45,500 square feet — and made room for 80 children, 40 more than before.

Not everyone will be celebrating, however. Some neighbors and local officials are watching the expansion on rural Lincoln Road warily, concerned that an increase in numbers will mean more problems.

“We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out,” said Police Chief Richard B. Stillman. “We already spend a significant amount of time there, breaking up fights, taking complaints for malicious destruction or assault, and lots of missing kids.

“I appreciate what they do,” he added. “It’s important for society to have places like this where kids can go and have a chance. But it does create problems for the town of Walpole. It’s a burden to our department, and obviously a burden to the neighborhood, as well.”

Wallace-Benjamin said her agency is taking steps to improve relations with the community, which Stillman acknowledged. Staff now wear identifying tags so neighbors know that groups of children are supervised when off school grounds. A Walpole police officer also is assigned as a liaison with Longview Farm.

But Wallace-Benjamin said she cannot promise neighbors that there will not be incidents.

“The way we deal with children with trauma has changed,” she said. “In the past, kids were pretty restricted, [the approach] was a bit more punitive, so the neighbors rarely saw or heard any acting-out behavior.”

But current practice recommends that youngsters be less confined, she said.

“If kids need to blow off steam, they can go outside, so neighbors have heard some blowing-off steam language, kids kicking garbage cans,” she said.

The state also is trying to keep more children in their homes — for financial and policy reasons — and “as a result, [our] numbers have gone down, and the kids who do remain with us tend to be more acute and have more severe problems,” Wallace-Benjamin said.

“Our kids that live and go to school at Longview Farm are there through no fault of their own,” she added. “They are not bad kids. They’re funny and kind and cool, and they want good things for themselves and their families. Do they have some issues they’re working through? Yes. They really deserve patience and understanding on behalf of the neighbors and community.”

Longview Farm has been in Walpole since 1940, when the Home for Little Wanderers bought the property from Helen Soutter, wife of a prominent Boston surgeon. The rationale was that a country home would help “some boys who could not adjust to foster care and who were not delinquent enough to be committed to state reform schools,” according to the agency’s records.

The program was one of several run by the Home For Little Wanderers, which was founded in 1865 to care for children orphaned and left homeless by the Civil War. More recently, the organization has focused on helping the state’s most vulnerable children with programs around Greater Boston, including in Norwood, Bridgewater, Plymouth, and Jamaica Plain. 

To further that goal, the agency announced in August 2011 that it would sell its Knights Children Center in Jamaica Plain and move the young children there — boys and girls ages 5 to 12 — to an expanded Longview Farm, which had been home to boys ages 10 to 17. 

The reasoning was that the Jamaica Plain facility needed extensive and expensive repairs, while the Walpole property had lots of room for expansion, Wallace-Benjamin said.

The decision did not sit well with some in Jamaica Plain, who fought the new owner’s plan to build luxury apartments. 

But work started at Longview Farm in fall 2011, with renovations and an expansion of the existing school and construction of four new dormitories. The facility is licensed for 80 youths; Wallace-Benjamin said the license allows older girls but there are no immediate plans to add them.

In August 2012, the 5- to 12-year-old children moved from the Jamaica Plain facility to Walpole.

As of last week, 21 of the youngsters and 35 older boys lived or went to school at Longview Farm, with about 125 staff, according to director Edie Janas. 

“These are the best kids in the world,” she said.

She said the school measures success is many small ways, such as a child sleeping through the night without nightmares, or completing a full school year, but the goal is for children “to spend as little time as possible living here.”

Most residential students stay for six months to a year before going home or to a foster home, she said.

Janas said the staff is very appreciative of the new space, which is airy and bright.

The classrooms all have computerized “smart boards,” and the art room has a kiln and three pottery wheels.

“While it’s nice and beautiful, the kids don’t want to be here,” she said. “They don’t want to have to go to a special school or live away from home. New space or old space — they’re not where they want to be.”

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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