Elected officials and neighborhood leaders in the Albany area are pressing to block a group home for the criminally insane.
They're known formally as forensic patients — psychiatric patients who would be spending time in prison, if they had not been found to be insane.
The debate in Albany is one of a handful in the Willamette Valley that have flared up in recently. As Rob Manning reports, mental health officials are trying to reassure neighbors that the homes are safe.
Linn County commission chair Roger Nyquist first heard that plans were going forward on the group home from his county health director. Nyquist says the state was asking for a letter of support for the plan from Linn County.
Roger Nyquist: “I was not willing to give that letter, as things further developed, I learned that they intended to go forward with a home at that location, so at that point I felt a duty to communicate the plans with the neighbors.”
Carol Mahr: “I was just stunned.”
Carol Mahr lives two doors down from the proposed group home.
Carol Mahr: “I had no idea that the state of Oregon could place homes like that in a neighborhood with no notice to the neighbors, or even from the city, apparently there are laws that prohibit us from learning of these things ahead of time.”
The law that Mahr is talking about is the federal Fair Housing Act, which prevents discrimination based on disability.
Bob Joondeph works for the Oregon Advocacy Center, a disability rights group. He says it’s important that all people are able to move into the community of their choice without needing the approval of neighbors.
Bob Joondeph: “Particularly for people with mental illness, the Fair Housing Act protects them from having to do that. But given the level of public misunderstanding and dare I say, prejudice, against people with mental illness, I think it is important to provide some education for people.”
But county commissioner Roger Nyquist says state officials are not sharing information with him, or other officials. He says he’s heard there could be up to 17 forensic patients headed to Linn County, but he can’t find out anything about them.
Carol Mahr is worried about who's moving into her neighborhood.
Carol Mahr: “It seems like those folks, whoever they are, seem to have far more rights than the hundreds of citizens in this neighborhood. Hundreds of people’s lives have to be compromised, have to be balanced against the fact that five of these people in this group home may, some day, get well.”
The prime issue for both Mahr, and county commissioner Roger Nyquist, is safety. And Nyquist is quick to make a distinction between the twenty-or-so other group homes throughout Linn County, and the one for five forensic patients, planned for an Albany cul-de-sac.
Roger Nyquist: “The folks in the neighborhood would refer to these folks as the criminally insane. I question, one, the policy decision to put forensic patients in high-density group homes all over Linn County and the state of Oregon.”
Secondly, Nyquist questions whether state lawmakers even had this in mind when they approved a new mental health paradigm for the state.
That was meant to move patients out of institutions like the Oregon State Hospital, as soon as possible. But state mental health officials contend that the residential facilities are safe and secure.
Bob Joondeph with the Oregon Advocacy Center regularly sues the state over problems in the mental health system. But he doesn’t dispute the safety of the forensic group homes.
Bob Joondeph: “Forensic group homes are by far the safest of all group homes, because in order for a person in the forensic system to leave the hospital, they have to found safe and stable by the hospital administration and the hospital medical staff and by the Psychiatric Safety Review Board.”
The head of the non-profit which bought the house contends that a neighborhood’s safety might even be improved, because of the 24-hour surveillance by the group home staff.
This Friday, Albany-area lawmakers plan to sit down with state health officials, and opponents of the group home to discuss “options”.
Long-time observers say often, heated arguments result in the non-profit provider pulling out. Officials there say that won’t happen.
State health officials says local residents often calm down after the homes operate for a few years without incident. Opponents say they intend to stop it from operating in the first place.
Bob Nikkel is the head of the state’s mental health services. He says resistance to group homes is not new. But Nikkel says the disputes in Albany, as well as in Milwaukie and Cornelius, show resistance to more forensic patients in the community.
Bob Nikkel: “What we’re doing here isn’t a departure, it really isn’t anything new, but I think the fact that when we go into a community and we encounter neighborhood opposition, I think it’s sometimes heightened by the fact that it’s sometimes 100 percent forensic patients, but we’ve done this before in other communities.”
The difference, Linn County commissioner Nyquist would argue, is that the neighbors may not have known who was moving in. Nyquist says that may be a violation of state law, and both he and neighbors are considering a possible lawsuit on that basis.
In the meantime, people on both sides of the issue expect the treatment of forensic patients to be part of the legislative agenda beginning with committee meetings, as soon as next month.