WSAZ Investigates | Group home for mentally ill people charged with crimes being considered

Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 6:55 PM EST
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CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Construction began on what many neighbors in Huntington believed to be new apartments a few months ago along Norwood Road in the Huntington area.

But an investigation by WSAZ’s Sarah Sager found the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources plans for a group home, and it could be housing what DHHR refers to as “forensic patients.”

“What were you hearing was going to be put there?” Sager asked neighbor Jennifer Lester, who lives two doors down from the project in the 3400 block of Norwood Road.

“Just apartments at first. I didn’t know what kind of apartments, just apartments. maybe townhouses,” Lester said.

Last week, Sager received a tip that address would soon be a forensic group home.

According to the state DHHR’s website, those homes are for people with mental disorders or defects involved in the criminal justice system.

So, Sager started making calls and asking for documents. She obtained the building permit for the site, which shows renderings and plans, but describes it as an “independent living facility.” The permit states it is being built by a developer in conjunction with the DHHR.

She reached back out to the DHHR with questions and requested an interview. That interview request was ignored, but a spokesperson confirmed in statement that the property under construction is “a future group home site.” She went on to say the original intent for the site was to use it as a forensic group home; however, the proposed population may change as more information becomes available.”

Sager asked if patients at the new facility would be coming from any of the state’s psychiatric or mental health hospitals, including Sharpe or Mildred Mitchell Bateman.

The spokesperson said, “if this site is utilized as a group home for forensic patients, referrals could come from William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital, Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, or a diversion facility such as River Park Hospital or Highland-Clarksburg Hospital.”

Lester, who lives just doors down from where the new group home is being built, is also a psychiatric nurse. She has worked in state-run facilities that house the patients who could become her neighbors.

“Forensic patients are patients that have committed crimes that normally put someone else in prison, but these people have been deemed incapable of standing trial,” Lester said. “So, they go to a place like a state hospital instead where they either get through their sentence there or at some point in time they are no longer deemed incapacitated and they can then stand trial and then go to prison. If I didn’t know anything about forensics I would probably be afraid, but knowing about forensics makes me even more afraid not less afraid.”

Sager also reached out to representatives for this district, including state Sen. Mike Woelfel and state Del. Matthew Rohrbach, and County Commissioners Kelli Sobonya, John Mandt Jr., and Liza Caldwell, who like Lester say they did not know about the construction of the facility.

“I like knowing that I can take my key and walk into the facility and do my job,” Lester said. “I love doing my job. I love being a psych nurse - even with forensic patients. But I also love knowing that at the end of the night that I can take that same key and lock it behind me and go home where it’s much safer. Obviously, we’re never 100% safe.”

Lester also feels the community should have been more informed.

Sager: “Were you ever informed in any way?

“Nope, I had no idea until today when you told me. If my voice can be heard to anyone, I’d advise against putting forensic patients there. I understand that these are patients that have been released and are being released to a group home, but it doesn’t mean that there aren’t extra dangers with them over the general public. "

Sager also reached out to the DHHR with several follow-up questions, including if the community was notified in any way and if the DHHR knew about bus stops, schools, and daycares in the area.

Sager also reached out to DHHR with several follow up questions - including if DHHR knew about bus stops, schools, and daycares in the area. Sager received a response from a DHHR spokesperson just before 5 p.m. Monday that says, “While the building guidelines note that ‘This is a risk-potential facility and should not be located near public and private schools,” this is not a requirement in state code or rule.”

Sager also asked if the community had been notified about the home in any way or if it was required to be announced in a newspaper. The DHHR spokesperson responded saying, “When the building is nearing completion, the behavioral health center will host community education events to educate the public, answer questions and address concerns. There is no requirement for announcements to be made in local newspapers.”