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Detention center plans opposed

| Sunday, July 1, 2001

A plan to open an alternative jail in Lawrenceville for fathers who fail to pay child support is drawing controversy.

County officials want to make the men pay what they owe, but nearby residents fear for their neighborhood's safety.

The city's planning commission is expected to decide in one month whether to recommend a Goodwill Industries plan to convert a former chemical processing plant at 146 46th St. into a work-release facility for up to 60 men transferred from the Family Division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

These men may not be role models, but they're not hardened criminals either, court and corrections officials say.

'This doesn't present any kind of a safety risk. These people aren't criminals,' said Linda Liechty, administrator for the Family Division.

'The problem is if you send them to jail and they're not working, they can't pay. The point of the work-release program is that they can be ordered to go out and get a job and start paying.'

That does little to calm residents living near the proposed detention center.

Eileen Bartosh, 63, lives a block away on 46th Street. She said the working-class, 'decent neighborhood' has enough problems in the form of drugs and other crime without importing trouble.

Once the facility opens, 'your property won't be worth nothing, and you won't feel safe,' she said. 'We're hoping that it's not a done deal.'

At a public hearing last week, area residents made clear that they don't want the facility in their neighborhood. Bartosh said the detention center would be too close to Leslie Park and the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, both of which draw large numbers of children.

Nor do Bartosh and others believe court officials and Goodwill will be able to fulfill their promise of weeding out inmates also charged with crimes more serious than failure to make child support payments.

'We don't need people walking up and down the street all the time. You're going to feel unsafe,' said Angeline Michalowski, 73, who lives several doors away from the site on 46th Street.

Goodwill points to another work-release program it operates on the South Side. About 30 men charged with nonviolent offenses such as drunken driving and drug possession return each night to the Community Corrections Center at 2400 E. Carson St. after their day's work. The facility has had no major problems in the 35 years it has been there, said David Tobiczyk, Goodwill of Pittsburgh's vice president for development and community relations.

'It's been a very successful operation, which is one of the reasons we feel we can do this well with the Lawrenceville community,' Tobiczyk said.

Local law enforcement and the courts support Goodwill's proposal, due to a steady increase over the past 20 years in the number of fathers charged with failure to make child support payments, Liechty said.

Tobiczyk said welfare reform has worsened the problem, which has removed some single mothers from the welfare rolls.

The family division hears about 125 cases each week of delinquent child support payments, Liechty said.

Since he came into the job in 1998, Sheriff Peter DeFazio and six deputies working full-time on child support cases have cleared 6,856 warrants on fathers who are behind on support payments.

In 1997, the year before DeFazio's election, deputies cleared about 220 warrants. In 2000, the department cleared nearly 10 times that number, and had already cleared 1,240 by June 25 this year, he said.

'Every week we get a batch (of warrants) sent over,' DeFazio said. 'We're never going to be ahead of the game. The main goal is for them to pay child support so the taxpayers don't pay it.'

Like its South Side counterpart, the Lawrenceville facility would offer education and employment assistance, counseling, and help with bus passes and 'all of the things you need to go to work,' Liechty said.

It would also have a staff of six to monitor program participants around the clock. They would have a 10 p.m. curfew.

'It's a good thing all around. It's good for the taxpayers, because it's less expensive than the county jail,' Liechty said. 'It's good for the children and the plaintiffs in these cases, because they get the money they need, and it's good for the defendants, because they end up with the skills they need' to support themselves and their dependents.

The county would pay Goodwill $50 per day per participant. Calvin Lightfoot, warden of the Allegheny County Jail, calls that a savings for taxpayers. It costs $58 a day to house inmates at the county jail, he said.

The Goodwill facility also would lessen occupancy at the county jail, which gets particularly overcrowded in the summer. But the bottom line is that child support payments would be made in cases where that otherwise wouldn't happen, Lightfoot said.

'Jails are supposed to be for the toughest criminals. I don't see deadbeat dads as being in that category,' he said.

Gregor McGavin can be reached at gmcgavin@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7844.

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