BY JOE OLENICK
Niagara Gazette — A change in policy with the Niagara County Sheriff's Office is bringing more attention to a residential home for children in Lockport.
Five teenage girls were reported as running away from Wyndham Lawn Home for Children in a span of a little over two weeks, between Aug. 27 and Sept. 13.
That number is unusual but not unprecedented, said Joseph Gallagher, a spokesperson for New Directions Youth & Family Services, the nonprofit agency that oversees Wyndham Lawn.
“When youth do leave, they often leave together and some will leave several times in succession before resolving their issues,” he said. “Both of which will cause a temporary spike in these reports.”
Located on Old Niagara Road near the town and city line, Wyndham Lawn takes children who are placed by the county Family Court. The home is not a part of the juvenile corrections system, Gallagher said, so by design Wyndham Lawn does not have fences or locked residential buildings.
What complicates the issue is that Wyndham Lawn cannot stop kids from leaving. Regulations from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services do not allow New Directions to physically restrain children who chose to leave the campus. Nor can the agency force them to return if their location becomes known.
Gallagher said Wyndham Lawn strives to “provide a residential environment where daily living activities are designed to provide guidance, promote positive choices and motivate personal growth.” The home provides residential treatment with a staff that aims to build strong relationships with youth and families.
“The safety and security of our residents is our highest priority,” Gallagher said.
So Wyndham Lawn works in cooperation with the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, who has the legal authority to locate and return these youth to the campus, Gallagher said.
“Accordingly, the sheriff’s office is contacted every time a youth leaves the campus, even though in many cases the kids return on their own within a relatively short time,” he said.
And recently, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office said it will start releasing “missing person/attempt to locate” alerts for a child who leaves Wyndham Lawn without permission.
The five teenage girls were among the first to be reported runaways by the Sheriff’s Office. Earlier this month, three of them were announced to have left Wyndham Lawn. Montasia Trotter, 17, is a black female with black hair and brown eyes. She is listed at 5-foot-3 and 148 pounds. Trotter was last seen wearing khaki pants and a navy blue sweatshirt.
Odalys C. Perez, 16, is a black female with black hair and brown eyes. She is listed at 5-foot-4 and 180 pounds. Perez was last seen wearing skinny jeans, a navy blue Buffalo Sabres hooded sweatshirt, socks and sandals.
Rahnia C. Harper, 16, is a black female with black hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing dark blue jeans, black shirt and gray boots.
Deputies said all three were last seen at about 11:30 p.m. Sept. 13 on Old Niagara Road, heading toward the City of Lockport. They all have connections in Erie County.
A couple of days before that, Wilisha Walker, 16, was reported missing and a warrant was released out of Erie County Family Court for Kayla Walker, 17. Kayla is described as a black female, 5-foot 4, 110 pounds, black hair and brown eyes, last seen wearing a red Adidas shirt, black leggings, a blue sweatshirt and white canvas sneakers.
Wilisha is described as a black girl, standing 5-foot-1 and weighing 113 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing a navy blue hooded sweatshirt, black leggings, black boots, a baby blue T-shirt and a brown or tan purse.
No suspicious or dangerous circumstances are suspected, the office said.
Gallagher said New Directions recognizes the risks faced by any teen who is out alone and unsupervised in the community, for even a brief period of time. So, the agency greatly appreciates the sheriff’s office’s efforts to keep the kids safe, he said. And the reports are helpful, Gallagher added.
“Wyndham Lawn enjoys a very good working relationship with the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office and we value their ongoing support,” he said. “It’s better to have a process in place.”
Wyndham Lawn currently has two residential programs on the 70-acre campus. There’s the traditional residential program for youth, generally in the 13 to 17 year-age range. It has a licensed capacity of 32 kids, a current population of 27 and a length of stay of approximately nine to 10 months.
Wyndham Lawn also has a residential assessment and evaluation program which provides services to younger children. That program has a licensed capacity of 17 kids and is currently running at capacity, Gallagher said. The average length of stay for the assessment and evaluation program is approximately nine months.
In all, the 70-acre, park-like campus usually has between 44 and 49 children in the residential programs on any given day.Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.