Protestors suggested that the juvenile offender facility, which stands feet away from residential homes, has largely been swept under the rug since plans went into motion for the site around a year ago.
The Queens Village Civic Association (QVCA) and Glen Oaks Village co-sponsored the protest. Mohamood Ishmael, president of QVCA and a member of Community Board 13, said the first time anyone in the community heard about the facility was about a month ago when representatives from the Administration of Children's Services (ACS) attended a meeting with the board.
Since then, Ishmael said residents haven’t been notified and ACS failed to set up any protocol with the police at the 105th Precinct.
"It is a stunning communication failure of our local political leadership that civic leaders only learned about this proposed prison recently,” Bob Friedrich, president of Glen Oaks Village, added.
The facility is part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Close to Home initiative, which relocates imprisoned teenagers from upstate facilities to the city, where they can be closer to their families.
The teenagers have all been adjudicated as juvenile delinquents in New York City Family Court and have committed offenses that would have resulted in criminal charges if they were at least 18 when arrested.
After a seven-month period at the facility, in which they receive educational and clinical services, the teenagers will be released with after-care services to help with their transition back into the community.
"The city and state created a slick name, Close to Home, and continue the charade by telling us that children will be housed here,” Friedrich said. "The truth is, Close to Home is a politically correct term drafted by Albany and city politicians to keep a neighborhood prison completely under the radar.”
According to Friedrich, ACS is an agency that has "repeatedly failed to properly manage any of their facilities.” Between 2013 and 2014, nearly 450 teenagers went AWOL from similar facilities run by ACS.
Last week, three teenagers from a similar ACS group home robbed, raped and assaulted a woman in Manhattan. In 2013, a Close to Home site in Staten Island closed down after one of its AWOL teens was arrested and accused of murder.
State Senator Leroy Comrie said both the “governor and ACS have their heads in the sand” when it comes to the approval process of such facilities. He said he is willing to help residents fight the proposal, either politically or through a lawsuit.
The future Queens Village location will be the second proposed site within Queens. Residents in South Ozone Park have brought a lawsuit forward in order to stop the opening of a similar juvenile offender facility in their neighborhood.
Community members at the Queens Village protest were adamant about following South Ozone Park’s footsteps with a lawsuit of their own if necessary.
Jose Coyoc, a business owner located across the street from the site, carried a sign stating “Don’t devalue my investment, no dumping in Queens Village.” He recalled Merrick Academy being an overcrowded school, but said that the community tolerated it because it was a school.
He predicted the proposed facility will ruin the community that he’s seen grow over the past 43 years.
Many offered alternative uses for the vacant building. Tiffany Jefferson, a teacher and mother of two boys living in the area, spoke to the crowd about building something that could uplift the neighborhood.
Some of her suggestions included another school, a community center, a community garden or a farmer’s market. Anything but a juvenile delinquent facility.
Community and civic leaders suggested the teenagers be moved to an industrial zone or to Rikers Island.
Bobby Sher, president of Bellpark Manor Terrace, drew loud applause when he argued that youthful offenders could hurt a person just as much as someone older.
"If someone comes to me, robs me, and cracks me over the head with a baseball bat, I’m not going to say if he was a year older it would hurt a lot more," he said.