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Syosset residents voice concerns over more teens at MercyFirst

John Schneider, a Syosset resident and NYPD lieutenant

John Schneider, a Syosset resident and NYPD lieutenant commander, voices his concerns Tuesday night about plans by MercyFirst to house more teenagers at its facility.     Credit: Shelby Knowles/Shelby Knowles

Residents living near a Syosset social service agency for troubled teenagers fired questions at administrators Tuesday night about how they will safeguard the community when more youths are housed at the facility.

The 7 p.m. community forum at South Woods Middle School on Pell Lane in Syosset drew a crowd of more than 250 to vent their concerns to Gerard McCaffery, chief executive officer of the agency, MercyFirst, and county law enforcement officials.

The Raise the Age law, which went into effect in October, bans juvenile offenders up to 17 years old from adult correctional and detention facilities. Community members as well as some state and county lawmakers have said the law could pose security risks if more teenagers are sent to live in nonsecure facilities like MercyFirst.

"You can't control who's there currently — and that's the problem," said 28-year Syosset resident Danielle Mattina, adding that police officers with guns drawn chased an unnamed MercyFirst resident, who was suspected of committing a robbery, through her backyard. "Quite simply, that night was a very scary experience for me."

Mattina spoke during a question-and-answer session after McCaffery, whose agency organized the forum with Syosset school district officials and state Assemb. Michael Montesano (R-Glen Head), tried to reassure residents the additional teenagers will be well cared for and not disruptive. He said the facility has installed a new fence and the new residents will be housed in separate quarters than the current 100 or so teenagers. McCaffery said the new residents have been referred to MercyFirst by the courts for nonviolent offenses.

MercyFirst is a social service agency that caters to teenagers who have been in foster care, are having family problems or who have been in trouble with the law. The agency provides a host of services including education and counseling.

Residents who live near the Convent Road campus have complained for years of teenagers leaving the facility and trespassing on their property, though few if any have reported serious crimes until recent years, attendees said.

McCaffery said he is prepared to accept up to 10 boys and four girls as soon as next month. He added that the facility will not house teenagers from New York City or who have served time at Rikers Island, trying to dispel rumors that some violent offenders would live at MercyFirst.

But several speakers were skeptical, saying they have already experienced problems that could likely get worse.

"These are not honor students," said 35-year Syosset resident John Schneider, a lieutenant commander in the Detective Bureau of the NYPD, who offered a detailed analysis of what he saw as the facility's security shortcomings.

He stated, bluntly and amid applause, "We don't want them in Syosset-Woodbury. You're bringing no value to our community and you are stressing our resources."

The Raise the Age legislation went into effect statewide on Oct. 1. It is the result of several years of campaigning at the local level and in Albany to bring New York’s penal code in line with those in nearly all other states that try 16- and 17-year-old offenders in Family Court and detain them in, and sentenced them to, juvenile facilities.

Jackie McKelvy, chief program officer at MercyFirst, said the facility is "not detention, it's treatment."

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