WSAZ Investigates | DHHR changes course on group home in Cabell County

Published: Feb. 14, 2023 at 7:09 PM EST
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CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - We have an update to an investigation we reported Monday about the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources planned group home along Norwood Road.

It would house people charged with crimes but deemed incompetent to stand trial. The group home is already under construction and sits near countless bus stops, schools, and a daycare.

Less than 24 hours after our investigation aired, the DHHR is changing course, announcing that home will now be used for youth in foster care.

WSAZ’s Sarah Sager spoke with neighbors and lawmakers who say the change is a start but brings a new set of concerns.

“If my voice can be heard to anyone, I’d advise against putting forensic patients there,” said neighbor Jennifer Lester on Monday when we told her about the state DHHR’s plan to put a group home for mentally ill patients charged with crimes -- just two doors down from her house in Huntington.

The property along Norwood Road sits in the middle of a residential area -- near school bus stops, a daycare and not far from schools.

But the DHHR changed course on the plan Tuesday. While the agency ignored our request for an on-camera interview, they sent out a news release late Tuesday afternoon.

The release states in part, “At the time this facility was envisioned in 2021, leaders at DHHR agreed its best use for the Huntington community was as a forensic group home. However, now, with so many children in state custody in need of residential mental health intervention being served out of state, we revised its purpose to instead be a home to serve West Virginia’s youth with mental health needs.”

So, Sager reached back out to Lester to share the news.

“Tell me what your emotion was when you picked up your phone and saw the text?” she asked.

“I started crying happy tears, because I have two beautiful girls myself who are nine and under. There are the same age girls in a very small radius of that facility, and I don’t want to think that they can’t go out and play in their yard. I keep a close eye on them, but I don’t think I could walk away for a second if that was a forensic facility.”

While working on her original investigation, Sager reached out to local leaders and lawmakers, including state Sen. Mike Woelfel and Cabell County Commissioners Kelli Sobonya, John Mandt Jr., and Liza Caldwell.

On Tuesday, the Cabell County Commission released the following statement:

“The Cabell County Commission is deeply concerned about the project being developed on Norwood Road in Huntington, West Virginia, and the lack of communication to the commissioners and the public by the West Virginia Department of Human Resources of their proposed plans.

“We consider transparency a top priority and moving forward, we will make sure every effort under our authority protects the safety and quality of life of residential neighborhoods and the welfare of our children.

“While we are pleased to learn, through WSAZ, that their original plans will change from a forensic adult program to a facility to house foster children, it could still leave the door open for future changes by DHHR.

“Moving forward, the Commission will solicit the input of the citizens of Cabell County in developing policies that afford such protections and demand that the WV DHHR create a seat at the table of dialogue with any future plans that involve Cabell County.

“We believe the WV DHHR should make financial investment into its existing facilities that are designed for the forensic population instead of looking to residential neighborhoods for this type of placement.”

With the DHHR now saying the facility will house youth in foster care, we reached out asking if those placed there will have a history of mental or behavioral issues -- and if they will be coming from out of state facilities.

A spokesperson responded, saying it will be a residential mental health treatment facility for children who historically have been served in out of state facilities.

Sager asked Lester is she has any worried about the new direction of the facility.

Lester said, “I do have a little bit of concern. You know, a lot of time foster kids, especially older foster kids, they’ve been abused and they are still trying to figure out the world. There’s a lot of behaviors, and they like to run away. I figure I may end up with some in my yard, but at my facility we actually have those children there, as well.”

“Do you still have any concerns?” Sager asked Del. Matthew Rohrbach.

Rohrbach replied, “Well, I’m always concerned, and that’s why I’m going to keep looking into this situation because that is just not something that needs to be placed in that neighborhood.”

We also received a statement from state Senator Woelfel who represents the area where the home is being built. It reads, “I am pleased that DHHR has reversed its chosen purpose for this site and hopeful the agency will see fit to involve the community in the future. DHHR should learn from its errors and act more responsibly in the future.”