Originally created 09/01/02

Home causes worry in area



What it comes down to, they say, is just being good neighbors.

But the relationship between residents and group care homes in the community is more intricate than that. It's a balancing act among the rights of the disabled, the federal fair housing laws, property rights, community safety, and neighbors' state of mind.

And one jostle - such as the early morning assault call last weekend at the Chimney Hill group home in Columbia County - can send the already tenuous relationship tumbling.

"My nice little peaceful neighborhood is not nice and peaceful anymore, I don't think," said Phil Rentfrow, a Chimney Hill resident.

The incident - in which 51-year-old Michael Eskew is charged with stabbing a worker at the group home while attempting to rape her - intensified residents' questions about the home at 650 Chimney Hill Circle. How did it get there? Who is housed there? What could homeowners do about it?

And it raised questions about the role of the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Georgia's role in the community.

"I think they could do a better job of educating the communities beforehand, and that would ease the concerns of many of the residents," said state Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans. "Education and communication would solve a lot of problems."

Representatives from the association's office in Atlanta did not return two calls to their office last week seeking their view.

Chimney Hill resident Rodney Benefield - who has become a community spokesman since the Aug. 24 incident - said a visit from someone from the cerebral palsy association would have been appreciated when work started on the home next door earlier this year. It took a casual conversation with a worker to find out who was moving in, he said.

"I just think there should be some way to notify residents, even if it is just a little tri-fold that says 'We are coming, and here's who we are,"' he said. "And maybe, 'Here are some things you shouldn't see. If you do see some of these things, here are some numbers you should call."'

At first, Mr. Benefield said, he wondered if the home was zoned correctly - he considered the home a commercial enterprise in a residential area.

But the rules on such houses are fairly clear.

They are allowed under federal fair housing laws, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex or disability.

And they are permitted under county zoning laws as a single-family residence because they are classified as a personal care home and there are fewer than six residents.

That's OK with Mr. Benefield. He said his concerns about the home have never been about limiting where disabled people can live.

"Disabled is a nonissue with me; it doesn't exist," he said. "They are just people. But I want to know if someone has mental illnesses or psychological issues that would lead them to be a danger to the community, especially the children. ... That's not just people in group homes. That's anybody."

Andrew McCollum, the executive director of the Region 12 Mental Health, Development Disabilities and Addictive Diseases Board, said there is no reason to think someone who is disabled is any more violent than another member of the population. Plus, there's an extensive screening process for residents placed in group homes.

"We are very careful about who we put there," he said, adding that his office - or an outside contractor - inspects such homes on a regular basis. "We don't just put people there and hope everything goes well."

Group homes such as the Chimney Hill residence must meet guidelines similar to a personal care home and are regulated by the Georgia Department of Human Resources' Office of Regulatory Services, Mr. McCollum said.

In Chimney Hill, the home had four men as residents and, though the home is operated under the auspices of the United Cerebral Palsy Association, it housed some residents with disabilities other than cerebral palsy.

"The company has an extraordinary reputation and has done outstanding work in our region," Mr. McCollum said.

Since the Aug. 24 attack, Mr. Benefield has organized a community meeting and is formulating a list of things he wants accomplished, including better notification of residents when a group home locates nearby and a committee of people who can review the screening process.

Mr. McCollum said he's willing to work with county leaders and Chimney Hill residents in the coming weeks to promote better understanding of the group homes and ensure the facilities are better neighbors.

"We always want to be good neighbors," he said.

Officials plan to meet again with residents in mid-September, said County Commission Chairman Jim Whitehead.

"If we need to do something for their safety, we need to look at doing it," he said.

Controversy also broke out last month in a residential neighborhood in Burnettown in Aiken County, where neighbors protested a possible facility to house mentally ill teens, ages 13-18.

As of late Monday, Joyce Gregory, the chief executive officer of Emerald Youth Services, had not appealed the decision of the South Carolina Department of Social Services to deny her application to house the mentally ill teens.

Ms. Gregory, who housed mentally ill adults at the facility until September 2001, was said to have a history of severe deficiencies.

Neighbors said the patients formerly housed in Gregory's facility were not properly supervised and roamed the neighborhood.

Staff Writer Carly Phillips contributed to this report.

Reach Jason B. Smith at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 115, or jbsmith@augustachronicle.com.