WSAZ Investigates | Gov. Justice signs Forensic Group Home Bill

W.Va. Gov. Jim Justice has signed a legislative bill that will keep the state DHHR from ever putting a forensic group home into a residential area unannounced.
Published: Mar. 9, 2023 at 7:22 PM EST
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CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) - Last month, WSAZ told viewers 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.

It’s a plan we uncovered - one neighbor and leaders say they knew nothing about - until we told them.

Since our investigation, the DHHR changed course on its plan. Now, there is a new law in effect to prevent this situation from happening again.

For months, neighbors driving past 3435 Norwood Road in Cabell County were seeing construction and wondered what was being built.

What those neighbors nor leaders in the community knew was that the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) was planning to use the property to house people the agency refers to as forensic patients - or those charged with crimes but deemed incompetent to stand trial.

The facility is called a forensic group home and it was set to be built in the middle of a residential area, near schools, school bus stops, and a daycare.

WSAZ’s Sarah Sager received a tip about the project and started digging.

She obtained the project building plans which mention DHHR, but nowhere is the word forensic.

Instead, those plans are labeled “independent living/care facility.”

So Sager reached out to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources about the facility. A spokesperson confirmed, “The original intent for the site was to use it as a forensic group home.”

Sager went to speak with neighbors who were stunned.

“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,” said neighbor Jennifer Lester.

Leaders and lawmakers 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 Del. Dr. Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell.

The DHHR quickly changed course, and put out a press release less than 24 hours after our initial investigation, saying the facility would now be used for West Virginia’s youth with mental health needs.

But community members were still concerned. The held two meetings in a week, drawing hundreds.

“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.

The DHHR changed course again publicly during the governor’s virtual press briefing on Feb. 24, 2023.

“I’d like to comment on the construction that has been underway in the Huntington area,” said interim DHHR Secretary Jeff Coben 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, Feb. 24, 2023, 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 read aloud a letter they sent 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.

One week after WSAZ’s investigation unveiled the forensic home plan, the West Virginia Senate introduced a bill aimed at preventing this situation from happening again.

It states: ”The forensic group home 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 learning pods and micro-schools.”

Sager sat down with Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who drafted the bill after it was introduced in late February.

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.

Since that time, Sager has been tracking the bill as it worked its way through the West Virginia Senate and House.

The final version of the bill passed the Legislature on March 6, 2023 - three weeks after WSAZ’s initial investigation.

Sager: “I just wanted to ask you what was going through your head when SB 679 passed the Legislature on Monday?”

Tarr: “Relief. I was really glad for the residents of Cabell County especially down there that these forensic homes that are already starting to be put in their neighborhood are now not going to be there. And then also, just looking ahead for the rest of the state as well. This is something that should have been fixed well ahead of this, and I’m glad we caught it when we did.”

The bill then made its way to Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday, March 8. He then signed the SB 679 on Thursday, March 9.

Both legislators and neighbors say they’re thankful WSAZ brought the issue to light and are relieved a new law on the books will prevent a similar situation.

“I’m so glad you exposed it. We all appreciate you. And our representatives for this area as well that have all listened to us and came for the meetings. We appreciate them as well,” Lester said.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources sent out a news release Thursday stating the agency will immediately uphold the requirements of the new law. The release goes on to state in part, “The legislation impacts a group home site under development in Wood County and a planned future site in Kanawha County. DHHR will work with stakeholders to assess future use of those sites.”

Currently, there are seven existing forensic group home facilities already in operation across the state of West Virginia.

This new law allows those existing facilities to continue to operate if they can show they have patient control measures in place.

Sager has more questions for DHHR about why land the agency already owns isn’t being used for needed facilities. She also has filed additional document requests and has will be updating this story with additional information.

For previous coverage:

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

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