Bristol Mayor Art Ward’s constituents had questions when they learned two group homes were moving into their neighborhood, but they never got satisfactory answers. Instead, he said, they got additional traffic and cars parked on sidewalks.
State lawmakers are now considering multiple bills that would require a public hearing on the location of any group home before it is approved, and to Ward, they represent a way to make sure residents get their questions answered.
“We’re infringing on their rights by not giving them access to the questions that they’re asking,” Ward said.
But Ellington resident Walter L. Glomb, Jr., sees something else in the proposals. His son has Down syndrome and receives services from the state Department of Developmental Services, and Glomb wondered why his son should be subjected to a public hearing on where he can live.
“What’s the purpose of the public hearing if not to exclude?” he asked.
A debate that has taken place in communities across the state got an airing Monday at the state Capitol complex before the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee. Lawmakers argued on behalf of constituents who were dismayed to learn group homes would be opening in their neighborhoods and raised questions about public safety.
But other lawmakers, agency leaders and advocates for people with disabilities and mental illness said requiring a public hearing when deciding where a group home is placed could violate federal fair housing and disability protection laws. Parents of people with disabilities spoke of the importance of having their adult children be part of a community, and questioned why they should have to undergo scrutiny.
Others said making it harder to open a group home would conflict with efforts to serve more people in community settings, bring children in the care of the Department of Children and Families back from out-of-state placements, and close institutions like Riverview Hospital.
“We are talking about the rights of people with disabilities…I can’t believe we would survive a legal challenge,” said James Welsh, an attorney for DDS.
Similar bills have been proposed in the past, but this session has brought more of them, said Terry Edelstein, president and CEO of the Connecticut Community Providers Association. She said it likely stems from situations in Bristol and other towns where neighbors raised concerns after learning group homes would be developed.
Many of the group homes in the state are run by nonprofit providers overseen by DDS, DCF and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. They serve a wide range of people, including adults with intellectual disabilities, children who have been abused, juvenile offenders, adults with mental illness and people dealing with addiction.
Committee co-chairman Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, said one issue moving forward will be whether it is legally possible to create categories of group homes that would treat facilities for certain groups, like juvenile offenders or sex offenders, differently from homes serving other groups.
Cassano said the hearing made him think of his brother, who had spina bifida and who Cassano raised. His brother eventually moved into a specially designated housing unit in Massachusetts that “literally changed his entire life,” Cassano said.
But Cassano also acknowledged that if he had young daughters and learned a home for teenage offenders was moving in next door, “I’d be petrified too.”
Even if public hearings on group homes are informational, with no opportunity to reject the plan, Cassano said they could provide opportunities to organize opposition to the homes. “Can’t imagine what it would be like living in that neighborhood,” he said.
DDS Commissioner Peter O’Meara, whose agency oversees 870 group homes and collaborates with DCF for another 60, said the most important criteria in deciding where to locate a group home is finding the best fit for those living in the home.
“We have a strong relationship with those in the community…We are very anxious to resolve and end any disputes,” he said, adding that those served by the homes are often “full-fledged” functioning members of society.
DMHAS Commissioner Patricia Rehmer said it costs the state less for people to live in group homes than to stay in hospitals.
DMHAS has about 30 group homes, but is moving toward more supportive housing, which allows individuals to live in their own apartments with support. Still, some people require the additional supervision that group homes provide, she said.
The department has had a hard time finding sites for group homes, Rehmer said. In one case, the residents of a three-person home were subject to harassment from neighbors and had to be relocated, the worst thing that could happen to them from a clinical perspective.
“We were spending all the time talking about how the neighbors were treating them,” she said.
When problems in the neighborhood arise, Rehmer said, efforts to work with neighbors succeed 80 percent to 90 percent of the time.
Asked by state Rep. Richard A. Smith, R-New Fairfield, how children and other nearby residents are protected from group home residents, Rehmer noted that a person in a private residence next to a school could be abusing drugs. If someone leaves a group home, she said, staff would know about it.
“In many ways, a group home is a safer setting for individuals who have risky behaviors,” she said. Smith remained skeptical.
Other public officials cited public safety concerns in urging lawmakers to support the public hearing proposals.
Wolcott Mayor Thomas G. Dunn submitted testimony saying police had been called to the 12 group homes in his town 97 times in 2009 and 2010, leading to 17 arrests.
North Haven Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Vincent Landisio noted that the public safety code does not require local authorities to be notified if a group home has three residents or fewer, and some homes with up to six residents operate without the fire marshal’s knowledge because of an earlier law with a higher limit. “We find them by accident,” he said.
Landisio said fire officials want more information so they can properly respond in emergencies. It would be useful, for example, to know that a resident is blind, or autistic, or might be hiding when he or she hears the fire alarm.
James D. McGaughey, executive director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, said he can see why fire officials would want that information. But it’s important to consider people’s privacy, he said. DDS encourages group home providers to seek consent of residents or their guardians to notify fire authorities if there is a particular need for assistance in an evacuation.
“The reason that people are so careful about this is that there has been this pervasive ‘not in my backyard’ phenomenon,” he said.
State Rep. Robert C. Sampson, R-Wolcott, who introduced one of the bills, said the proposal was the result of concerns he heard from constituents.
“I’m very disappointed at the number of times the word ‘discrimination’ was used here today,” he said. “That’s not the intent.”
Instead, he said, homeowners and municipalities have legitimate reasons for wanting to get more information about group homes, he said.
Bruce C. Stovall, vice president of Oak Hill, which manages 85 group homes in the state with 500 individuals, framed it differently.
“Ask yourselves right now, when you choose to move to a new neighborhood, are you willing to subject yourselves to a hearing?” he said to the committee. “Are you willing to see if you pass muster with the neighbors? Willing to see if you are acceptable?”