By Sadef Ali Kully

Despite approving Administration Children’s Services contracts, the city comptroller’s office said Tuesday it would still begin an investigation into Administration for Children’s Services contracting process with a service provider for juvenile group homes.

Scott Stringer, head of the office, said the investigation will focus on ACS’s use of improper payment methods in the contracting and construction of the state’s “Close to Home” juvenile group home sites across the city.

Under the Cuomo administration, the Close To Home Initiative began in 2012. It is a juvenile justice reform program to help non-violent offenders transition into productive adults by placing them into neighborhoods close to their families. It has two phases: the first is the placement of non-violent youth offenders in non-secure homes and the second is the placement of delinquent youth with behavioral issues in limited secure residential homes.

“The city did an end run around procurement rules when they set up, paid for and prepared facilities for use as Close to Home juvenile detention centers,” Stringer said. “We are going to investigate this program to determine the financial implications of the breakdown in the contracting process.”

The Close to Home Initiative currently has two sites in Queens. There is a South Ozone Park site, where construction has been stopped under a federal injunction order due to a class action suit to halt work. At the former Merrick Academy school in Queens Village residents have staged protests every Saturday against the initiative’s proposal for a juvenile facility.

In June, Stringer’s office begun an audit of the Close to Home program’s non-secure placement facilities focusing on ACS’s compliance with regulations and other operational controls.

The Close to Home sites have become controversial. Several weeks ago three teenage residents of a Brooklyn facility disappeared. They were later arrested and charged with the sexual assault and rape of a woman in Chinatown, according to the Manhattan district attorney.

Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Ozone Park), who has been fighting ACS on the facility in his district with neighboring residents, said, “Today’s announcement is not surprising given the many mistruths and contradictions my office has encountered in its examination of the process that led ACS to locate a Limited Secure site in South Ozone Park. Nonetheless, our fight lives on.”

This month the Queens Village Civic Association and residents met with state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-Hollis) at the Church of the Living God at 205-15 Jamaica Ave. to discuss their options on preventing a juvenile group home from coming into their neighborhood.

In response to the investigation, an ACS spokesman said the agency has followed the recommendations made by Stringer’s office and indicated three non-profit providers were looked at.

“Since then, ACS has investigated and corrected its payment practices,” he said. “The agency is working closely with the comptroller’s office to register the contracts of the three non-profit providers, each of which has a long history of providing excellent services to young people. The city looks forward to bringing additional justice-involved youth closer to home early this fall.”

Reach Reporter Sadef Ali Kully by e-mail at skully@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.

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