Residential Group Homes for Nebraska's Troubled Youth: an Attractive Alternative to Institutionalization

JurisdictionNebraska,United States
CitationVol. 77
Publication year2021

77 Nebraska L. Rev. 835. Residential Group Homes for Nebraska's Troubled Youth: An Attractive Alternative to Institutionalization



Residential Group Homes for Nebraska's Troubled Youth: An Attractive Alternative to Institutionalization


I. Introduction .......................................... 835
II. Residential Group Homes Promote Feelings of
Confidence and Belonging .............................. 837
III. Obstacles Facing the Creation of Juvenile Group Homes
Posed by "Single-Family Dwelling" Restrictions ........ 838
A. Restrictive Covenants .............................. 840
B. Municipal Zoning Laws .............................. 842
IV. Federal Statutory Laws and State Public Policies
Provide Additional Support for Juvenile Group
Homes ................................................. 844
A. Federal Protection from Family Status
Discrimination ..................................... 844
B. State Policy Promotes Placing Youth in Family
Settings ........................................... 848
V. Conclusion ............................................ 849


Recently a battle has been waged within Nebraska neighborhoods. (fn1) The conflict derives from the state's increasing exigence to provide housing for its troubled youth: teens who have been either


orphaned, abused or neglected.(fn2) On one side of the debate are state officials and child welfare advocates who recognize the unprecedented need for out-of-home residential care. The other side is represented by residential homeowners who fear that neighborhood tranquility will be jeopardized by the surge of troubled teens.

Clearly, the urgency to resolve this problem is real and undisputed. It is the proposed solution, however, that causes the most consternation: community-based group homes.

Residential treatment of troubled youth has gained vast acceptance over the past three decades.(fn3) Its growing popularity is largely due to the movement towards de-institutionalizing non-criminal juveniles, thereby separating them from their more troublesome and delinquent peers who do require some form of institutionalized detention. (fn4) Further, the lack of available foster homes, adoptive families and long-term care has created additional motives for the state to support residential care facilities.

The single largest obstacle facing the creation of such homes, however, is neighborhood opposition. Based largely on societal stereotypes and misconceptions, surrounding property owners contend that juvenile group homes pose special threats to neighborhoods, voicing concern over the dangerous nature of the juveniles and the lack of proper supervision within the group homes.(fn5) To combat this perceived problem, homeowners raise arguments under restrictive covenants or municipal zoning laws which restrict residential land use to "single-family dwellings."(fn6)

The concerns of neighboring homeowners are important considerations and must be respected by the state seeking to create residential group homes for troubled teens. However, such concerns should not prevent the state from advancing community-based group homes, but instead provide the needed impetus for the state to ensure proper supervision within the residential facilities and to educate neighborhood


groups on the nonviolent nature of the juvenile residents. Ultimately, these efforts will help to eradicate "irrational prejudice"(fn7) and create a comfortable, neighborly environment for all residents.

This Note examines the viability of residential group homes for Nebraska's troubled teenagers. Part II describes the positive impact that community-based group homes have upon abused and neglected youth. Part III addresses the obstacles facing the creation of such facilities, focusing on difficulties posed by restrictive covenants and municipal zoning efforts which restrict residential land use to "single-family dwellings." Finally, Part IV proposes that protections offered by the Federal Housing Amendments Act [hereinafter "FHAA"] under its "family status" provision, as well as the expressed public policies of this state, provide supplemental support in the movement towards sheltering Nebraska's troubled youth.(fn8)



Group homes are community-based treatment facilities in which a small number of residents live under the supervision and direction of a trained staff.(fn9) Regarded as a middle range placement option, as opposed to a foster family home or a more restrictive institutionalized setting, group homes represent an effective, inexpensive and, most importantly, "humane" approach to the care and treatment of troubled youth.(fn10)


By employing a structured therapeutic program, group homes create a social milieu whereby community involvement, group work, nondirective counseling and peer relationships are encouraged.(fn11) Such a nonauthoritarian approach, as compared with the more punitive and controlled environments of detention facilities, fosters interpersonal relations and character growth while exercising an overall positive influence on the attitudes and values of each resident.(fn12) Thus, by virtue of the group setting, interpersonal dynamics, trust and social skills may well be developed.(fn13)

An additional advantage of residential facilities is the benefits derived from the surrounding neighborhood.(fn14) As group homes essentially blend with other residences in the community, this indirectly provides a wealth of opportunities and positive influences for the juvenile residents.15 Neighborhood services, such as educational, religious, athletic and social clubs, enable teenagers to become active members of the community. This ultimately gives them the ability to acquire personal living skills, self-reliance and a sense of belonging.(fn16)




Notwithstanding the beneficial influences of group homes upon juvenile residents, community opposition to these facilities remains vigorous. (fn17) Attempting to prevent the creation of group homes, homeowners raise arguments under restrictive covenants or municipal zoning laws which restrict residential land use to "single-family dwellings." Neighborhood groups advocate a narrow interpretation of


"family,"(fn18) voicing concern that: (1) the dangerous nature of the juvenile residents will endanger the safety and welfare, peace, and tranquility of neighborhoods;(fn19) (2) there will be a decrease in neighboring property values;(fn20) (3) municipalities will be held liable for the actions of the juvenile residents;(fn21) and (4) juvenile residents will be exposed to teasing and harassment from neighborhood children.(fn22)

In response to these concerns, research by zoning experts indicates that group homes do not have a negative impact upon surrounding communities.(fn23) As cited in the case law, studies have been conducted on various group homes, including those occupied by more than eight residents, developmentally disabled adults, recovering substance abuse addicts, prison pre-parolees, the seriously mentally ill and dangerous juveniles.(fn24) These studies reveal that group homes do not have an adverse impact on residential character, property values, crime, safety, traffic, utilities, noise and parking, ultimately concluding that "group homes are residential uses compatible with residential neighborhoods."(fn25)

To date, most of the group home litigation concerns efforts to house handicapped individuals within residential neighborhoods.(fn26) Increasingly, however, litigation has focused on the viability of group homes for non-handicapped disadvantaged persons, such as the mentally ill,(fn27) recovering substance abuse addicts (fn28) and the elderly.(fn29) In addition, although relatively few in number, there are notable cases re-


garding the viability of juvenile group homes.(fn30) These occur within the context of restrictive covenants as well as municipal zoning ordinances.

Thus, the viability of group homes depends primarily upon judicial interpretation of either a restrictive covenant or a municipal zoning ordinance which limits residential land use to a "single-family dwelling." (fn31) Accordingly, courts are required to confront the difficult task of understanding and defining "family."(fn32)

A. Restrictive Covenants

Covenants running with the land commonly restrict land use to a "single-family dwelling." Not only do such restrictions control the use of land, "single-family dwelling" covenants also impact the types of people who occupy the land as well as the nature of improvements made upon the land.(fn33) Accordingly, developers are allowed to create and maintain attractive residential subdivisions by implementing such restrictions.(fn34)

Frequently, the phrase "single-family dwelling" is not defined in private covenants. Thus, courts have ample discretion to consult collateral authority, such as state statutory laws or municipal zoning ordinances, to properly interpret the language in the covenant.(fn35)

Courts typically construe single-family covenants by...

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