WSAZ Investigates | W.Va. Senate committee passes forensic group home bill
CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Since our investigation about the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ (DHHR) plan to put a group home for people charged with crimes -- but deemed incompetent to stand trial -- in the middle of a Cabell County residential area, the DHHR has changed course.
On Thursday, county and state leaders said they’re working to keep future facilities from popping up in your backyard. It’s a plan we uncovered and one neighbors and leaders say they knew nothing about -- until we told them.
When WSAZ’s Sarah Sager got a tip that’s what was happening, she started digging. Building plans mentioned the DHHR, but nowhere was the word forensic -- but rather “independent living/care facility.”
Sager reached out to the state, and a spokesperson confirmed the site was planned for forensic patients, so she knocked on nearby doors and encountered some shocked neighbors, including Jennifer Lester.
“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,” Lester said.
Some lawmakers and leaders were taken by surprise, too.
“I did not know about this until Sarah Sager got a hold of me a week ago Friday. It’s the first I heard about it,” said Delegate Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, at a community meeting on Sunday.
Feeling the heat, the DHHR quickly changed course -- putting out a news release less than 24 hours after our initial investigation, saying the facility along Norwood Road would be used for West Virginia’s youth with mental health needs.
But the community wasn’t having that either. Neighbors were so concerned that they held two meetings this week, drawing hundreds of residents.
“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.
Since that meeting Monday night, the DHHR changed course again publicly during Gov. Jim Justice’s press briefing on Wednesday.
“I’d like to comment on the construction that has been underway in the Huntington area,” said interim DHHR Secretary Jeff Coben on Wednesday during the governor’s virtual press conference. “The facility was envisioned by the leadership at DHHR to be used as a forensic group home.”
The interim secretary went on to say, “We’ve now made the decision to move forward with continuing the construction, building it out as a flexible administrative office space.”
Sager had asked interim DHHR Secretary Jeff Coben for an interview, with no response. She followed up with a few questions during a virtual briefing.
Sager said, “My first question is to the governor as well as Secretary Coben. I want to ask you your thoughts on transparency regarding this forensic group home in Cabell County. The community felt ambushed by this facility. They had no knowledge. The delegate, the senator, the county commission, no one knew that this was happening. Also, Dr. Coben, is the state keeping the contract with the developer that’s around $3 million now that the facility is going to be used as office space instead of residential?”
Coben responded, saying, “It was always the intent of the department to meet with the community prior to opening any facility. But, it’s also the intent of the department to try as I mentioned previously to make sure all individuals under the care of the department are placed in the least restrictive care setting that’s possible. So, I think that learning from this experience and making sure that as we move forward those types of meetings occur earlier on in the process.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Cabell County Commission amended its agenda to address the issue.
“I think unless you’ve been on planet Mars, you’ve probably been reading the news about the situation with DHHR wanting to move a forensic residential facility into a residential neighborhood,” Commission President Kelli Sobonya said.
Commissioners heard from concerned constituents who read a letter they are sending to DHHR about the project they knew nothing about.
“While we are pleased that the utilization of this property has changed recently, we would strongly appreciate that we would be informed of West Virginia DHHR’s plans that effect our county in the future,” Sobonya said.
Thursday afternoon, Sager headed to the West Virginia Capitol to the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services where a bill was discussed regarding these homes.
She sat down with Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who drafted the bill.
Sager: I wanted to ask you about the forensic group home, the bill that passed out of committee today. How did that get started?
Tarr: Actually, I saw your story, Sarah, on WSAZ that they were talking about a forensic group home. It really threw some alarm bells for me. We had had testimony from former secretary crouch in our committee over the interims and actually about these last year too during session.
The bill states, “Forensic homes shall not be located within one mile of a residential area, a public or private licensed day care center, or a public or private K-12 school.”
Sager asked Senator Tarr why he felt action needed to be taken and if he thought the legislation would pass.
“I’m confident it will pass the Senate. Frankly, I’m confident it will pass the Legislature.”
For copies of the pending legislation and letters exchanged between public officials:
For previous coverage:
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