WSAZ Investigates | Residents relieved group home plans appear to be scrapped

Last week, we reported about the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ plan to put a group home for people charged with crimes -- but deemed i
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 11:47 PM EST
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CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Last week, we reported about the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ plan to put a group home for people charged with crimes -- but deemed incompetent to stand trial -- in the middle of a residential area of Cabell County.

It’s a plan we uncovered and one that neighbors and leaders say they knew nothing about until we told them. Since then, lawmakers and leaders have come together for two meetings, including one Monday night.

WSAZ’s Sarah Sager was there and shows us why the community may soon be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

“I want to thank every one of you for coming up here. It shows a lot, shows a lot about our community,” said Gary Sawyers, who organized both community meetings held for people who live near or along Norwood Road.

The meetings come after a WSAZ investigation on Feb. 13 revealed the state DHHR contracted a private developer to build the group home in Cabell County. The agency confirmed the home was to house forensic patients -- or those who are charged with crimes but deemed mentally ill.

The property is in the middle of a residential area -- located near schools, bus stops and a daycare. We pointed out the agency’s own building code states group homes are a risk-potential facility and should not be located near public and private schools.

However, a DHHR spokesperson told us, “This is not a requirement in state code or rule” -- something that stunned neighbors when Sager told them.

Less than day after our initial story aired the DHHR changed course -- sending a news release stating they are changing plans for the facility from forensic patients to instead use the facility to serve the state’s youth in foster care with mental health needs.

The community was not on board with that plan either and gathered Sunday for a meeting to speak with community leaders including state Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell.

“I’ve got a lot to report, because I’m kind of the person that’s been up there dealing with DHHR and dealing with the governor on this,” Rohrbach said.

On Sunday, Rohrbach told about 100 people who attended that he had been working at the state level to have the facility changed from a group home to office space for the state -- something community members agreed they wanted as well

At Monday night’s community meeting, Rohrbach had an update from Charleston.

“The plan has been executed,” he said. “I met with the secretary of DHHR today and the secretary of the Bureau of Behavioral Health. They have agreed to meet and get it repurpose as office space. We basically got it worked out today. He said he’ll try to have me something by Thursday in writing -- a joint letter from he and the secretary of administration who oversees the state’s office buildings, but it’s all done.”

That news was met by applause from those in attendance -- relieved plans for this facility appear to be scrapped. But neighbors’ concerns now run deeper -- with fears of what could come in the future.

“Where do they derive the authority -- the state -- to go into any residential community outside a city and build whatever they want?” one resident asked.

All told, there are six pages with nearly 100 signatures objecting to an inpatient forensic facility along Norwood Road in Huntington. They are also asking that West Virginia Code be amended to prevent instances like this one from ever happening again.”

Gary Sawyers said, “If you signed the petition, if you noticed down on the bottom, it states that we need to keep this going. So I think that’s something that hopefully working with our commissioners and being able to stop that to where anybody can just come outside of the city limits and do whatever they want. That petition, we’re going to get it to whoever it needs to go to. We’ll just keep fighting for that until we get that stopped also.

Del. Rohrbach says he hopes to have plans to change to facility in writing by later this week. And for those with future concerns -- Cabell County Commission President Kelli Sobonya announced at the community meeting that Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, has drafted a bill to prevent forensic and residential group homes from going near schools.

We’ll be following up on that bill and with Del. Rohrbach on this facility. Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest.

For previous coverage:

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

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

WSAZ Investigates | Concerned community members meet with leaders to discuss proposed DHHR group home