Cornelius neighbors air concerns with group home operator

From the Oregonian, November 13 2008

Skeptical neighbors met this week with Luke-Dorf staff for the first time since the mental health care nonprofit changed its plans for what used to be a secure residential treatment facility.

They gathered in the now-empty Connell House, which the state closed in June after a resident escaped by climbing over the tall fence.

That fence is now gone, as are the original plans for the home, which Luke-Dorf is changing to an unlocked treatment facility for lower-risk residents.

After nearly two hours of presentations and sometimes tense discussion between the two sides, Cornelius resident Jim Claeys said he felt more comfortable with Luke-Dorf’s plans.

But he wondered why such a community discussion didn’t happen the first time.

In 2007, Luke-Dorf got a conditional use permit from the city to develop and operate a secure residential treatment facility.

But it wasn’t until December that neighbors — and the planning commissioners who approved the permit — discovered most of the home’s residents were people who had been found “guilty except for insanity” of crimes such as arson, attempted murder and rape.

The clients had been conditionally released from the Oregon State Hospital by the state’s Psychiatric Security Review Board.

City officials revoked the permit in January, leaving room for Luke-Dorf to reapply if it scaled down its plans. That’s what Luke-Dorf is doing now, with a public hearing before the Planning Commission expected in early 2009.

But the initial neighborhood uproar led to harsh feelings about Luke-Dorf that hadn’t faded Wednesday.

“You’re not trusted,” said Larry Gehrke, one of a dozen neighbors who showed up. “This is not a pro-Luke-Dorf crowd.”

Still, the meeting reassured some. Officials said they were working closely with the Washington County sheriff, who alerted neighbors to the home in December. “I trust Rob Gordon,” Claeys said.

And Ashleigh Brenton, who left Review Board jurisdiction in February, spoke movingly of her own path through the mental health system after being found “guilty except for insanity” of robbery and assault.

Brenton, a poised, friendly 52-year-old with no other criminal history, described the psychotic episode eight years ago that culminated when she sped away from a gas station with the attendant clinging to her car.

Neighbors applauded her honesty. But Claeys called Brenton’s behavior a “one-time thing” and said, “It’s the repeat offender we’re worried about.”

Mary Claire Buckley, the Review Board’s executive director, said the board considers patients’ criminal histories when deciding on releases. She cited confidentiality protections and said client profiles would be shared with Gordon and Cornelius Police Chief Paul Rubenstein but not the public.

Neighbors toured the 12-bed home and heard about the clients’ structured days: meals, medication management, community meetings, office visits, therapy and recreation.

The goal is to have clients ready to be on their own when the board’s jurisdiction ends and they go into the community.

At Connell House, residents could leave on their own but would still be closely monitored. Violations — skipping medication or returning late — could send them back to the state hospital — which none of them want, Luke-Dorf officials said.