McGruff still biting crime 20 years later

by Kevin Behr

Twenty years ago, McGruff Houses popped up all over Minneapolis, providing safe havens for children who are locked out or in trouble.

Today, the houses are still around, but their numbers are dwindling.

The program boasted more than 600 houses citywide in the past, but within the last few years, the number dropped to 407, said Mark Chelgren, database administrator for the Minneapolis McGruff House Program. There are 12 in neighborhoods near the University, he said.

“I think there are people out there that want to do it,” he said. “But the program isn’t what it used to be.”

Both Chelgren and crime prevention specialist Carol Oosterhuis cited the declining number of staff dedicated to the program as one reason for the decline.

“We used to have four times as many staff working on the prevention program,” Oosterhuis said. Amid budget woes, McGruff House duties were among the things cut to save money.

Kate Towle, who has run a McGruff House for 11 years in the Prospect Park neighborhood, said she noticed the shortage of officers to nurture the program contributed to the decline. And many families are just too busy to volunteer, she said.

McGruff House volunteers need to be home during the morning and afternoon hours to provide safe places for children under 12 to go in an emergency, said John Baumann, manager of the McGruff House Program.

“When adults think of emergency situations, we think of assault or kidnapping,” he said. “Kids think of being locked out, lost or frightened.”

As a result of the time constraints, most volunteers work from home, work part time or are retired, Baumann said.

Even with fewer volunteers, Towle said the need for McGruff Houses remains high.

“If every block had one,” she said, “I feel like there would be more safety for every child.”

There’s always a need for McGruff Houses, said Jackie Douda, a chemistry junior whose parents and babysitter both participated in the program when she was growing up.

They’re needed “not just in Minneapolis, but in all areas,” she said.

How to be McGruff

Just about anybody can become a McGruff House provider, Baumann said.

“It’s very simple volunteer work to get involved with,” he said. “The (application) process is pretty simple.”

Volunteers must be at least 18 years old and have personal accident liability insurance. Even renters may apply.

The first step to volunteering is filling out an application with a list of references, Baumann said.

Applicants must also authorize the police to perform criminal background checks on everyone 14 and older living in the house.

Baumann said disqualifications are rare, but volunteers with felonies or any conviction in the past five years are generally excluded.

In the final step, police visit the house to conduct interviews with the residents and their neighbors before handing over the McGruff House sign, which is placed in a front window.

Do they work?

Measuring the effectiveness of McGruff Houses is a difficult task; there’s really no way to do it.

Oosterhuis said the houses get used an average of once every two years, though providers don’t necessarily track each use accurately.

Carol Ferguson has run a McGruff House in the Southeast Como neighborhood for a year and a half, but no kids have used it yet.

Although there aren’t a lot of children living near her house, she said she became a provider “just in case.”

Towle said she has only helped three children in her 11 years as a McGruff House provider. The important thing, she said, is to make sure kids feel safe in the neighborhood.

“Any way we can create safety between people is very important,” she said. “We need to stick together and look out for kids’ needs.”