A Murder, a Melee, Lots of Questions

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Two New York State residential facilities and the nonprofit company that operates them are under investigation by the state after the beating death of a female group home worker, allegedly by two residents, at one location, and the arrest of a dozen youths after a brawl at the other.

The June 8 killing of counselor Renee Greco, 24, at Avenue House in Lockport, resulted in the suspension of New Directions Youth and Family Services’ license to operate the facility by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). Greco was alone in the home with five 17- and 18-year-old males the night she was killed. New York law allows staffing with only one caretaker per shift.

The death of Greco occurred less than 10 days after a brawl at a New Directions-run residential treatment facility in Randolph, in the far southwest portion of the state. The fight was broken up by sheriff’s deputies using pepper spray.

The trouble began when 12 youths fled the home, which houses as many as 82 youth with emotional or behavioral problems. Randolph Children’s Home cottages are staff-secured; a buzzer system helps staffers monitor when residents enter or leave.

The youths were found in an abandoned building across the street and returned by police officers without incident.

Back at the facility, however, a fight broke out and escalated. Brad Sande, director of development for New Directions, described the scene as a “madhouse,” while a sheriff’s official said officers only use pepper spray when an incident is “about as escalated as it can get.”

Eddie Borges, a spokesman for OCFS, confirmed that both homes and the nonprofit New Directions are under investigation. He said it is the first time that facilities of New Directions have been investigated.

Twelve youths face rioting charges, according to Sande. Several residents have been transferred to other locations.

Lone Staffer

Since Greco’s death at the Lockport facility, questions have been raised about the wisdom of leaving a young woman alone with troubled male teenagers. Sande declined to comment on the details of the incident, saying, “Our policy followed state policy all along.”

Sande said the state makes no distinction in its residential home staffing policy about the gender or size of the caretaker, but declined to comment on any history of violence among youths typically sent to Avenue House. He would not say whether the youths were sent to the home by juvenile or family courts, noting, “That is something they are looking into.”

Greco had worked at Avenue House for two years and reportedly told family and friends that she was scared to be alone with the home’s residents. It is unclear whether she expressed this fear to anyone at Avenue House or New Directions.

Authorities said Greco was playing cards with some of the residents when another youth threw a blanket over her head and he and another youth bludgeoned her to death. The two youths then fled in a van.

New Directions transferred Avenue House’s remaining three residents to another facility and closed the home, before OCFS announced the home’s license suspension the next week.

State officials are calling for a closer examination into residential homes’ operating procedures.

While OCFS’ investigation is ongoing, Borges, the spokesman, did address the staffing policy. “The one person was fine,” he said. “You can put everything in place, and sometimes tragedies do happen. The safeguards we have in place prevent this from being a regular circumstance.”