Springfield community in NIMBY-fueled dither over former state hospital inmates living nearby

The Register-Guard, April 21, 2015

From left to right: Jason Heckel, Michele Heckel, Mike Wetzell

From left to right: Jason Heckel, Michele Heckel, Mike Wetzell

Last month, Kim Gutierrez, a mother of three girls, moved out of a home she has rented for several years in a neighborhood she loved.

“I no longer feel safe here,” Gutierrez said. “I hate to leave here, but that is it.”

The source of her anxiety: the large single-family home near hers where five people who committed crimes but were acquitted because of insanity are now living under state supervision and treatment.

Other residents of the newer neighborhood have given Medford-based nonprofit mental health provider ColumbiaCare Services Inc. a similarly chilly reception after it recently opened the licensed residential treatment home on Clear Vue Lane near the Gateway area.

They’re concerned that families are in close proximity to acquittees who may have committed violent crimes. They’re angry that ColumbiaCare provided no public notice that it was opening the home. And they question why it bought a property close to an elementary school, public park and day care center.

Michele Heckel, whose home of three years is kitty-corner to the treatment home, said she and her husband have forbidden one of her daughters from picking up mail from the street’s common mailbox next to the treatment home.

“I’ve always been against guns in the home,” she said. But now, she said, “We are taking a course and looking into purchasing a firearm. We’ve lost a sense of security in our home.”

Courts put acquitted individuals under the supervision of the state Psychiatric Security Review Board if they are found guilty of a crime, but are acquitted because they have a mental defect or illness that prevented them from fully understanding the crime they committed.

State lawmakers created the board in 1977 and it has been cited as a national model for overseeing and treating insanity acquittees.

The state and counties contract with a number of mental health treatment providers to house acquittees who are stable enough to be conditionally released into the community. Offenders who remain a danger to the community are housed at the Oregon State Hospital.

ColumbiaCare and psychiatric board representatives say they understand the neighbors’ concerns. But they said acquittees have a legal right to live at the home and the law limits how much notification the state can give neighborhoods.

They say the acquittees are carefully screened before their release, and that they’re stable through treatment and supervised. They say community safety is paramount and that very few acquittees reoffend. Acquittees must abide by the terms of their release, and if they don’t, they can be sent to the Oregon State Hospital. They won’t disclose the specific criminal allegations the residents at Clear Vue Lane faced.

Jennifer Sewitsky, Columbia­Care’s spokeswoman, acknowledged that the provider must demonstrate it is a good and safe neighbor.

“We know what it is we’re doing,” she said. “We pay attention to quality. It’s something Columbia­Care takes a lot of pride in.”

Juliet Britton, the psychiatric review board’s executive director, said she understands that neighbors would take interest in the home but added that it’s “unfortunate that the stigma continues for those diagnosed with a mental illness even though they have completed every­thing they have been asked to do.”

“I am confident that our clients and the professionals who work with them will provide an opportunity to humanize disability and show that the state’s policy of community integration is successful,” she said.

She points to the track record of acquittees under board supervision. Seven-hundred acquittees have been under conditional release in the past four years, its data shows, and 12 of them have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor while under supervision.

The home is the first for ColumbiaCare in Lane County, but 11 acquittees live in three other similar homes in the area, according to Lane County Behavioral Health Services.

The Clear Vue home is east of Guy Lee elementary school and park, and south of Harlow Road.

ColumbiaCare bought the home for $382,000 in November from the Federal National Mortgage Association, which had foreclosed on the property earlier in the year, property records show.

The home is unsecured, meaning the acquittees aren’t locked in. At least two employees are awake at the home at all times, Sewitsky said.

The acquittees spend their days receiving mental health treatment, and they participate in group activities and skills training to help prepare them should they become eligible for eventual release from state supervision.

The opening of the home came around the time state regulators suspended the operating license for the Heeran Center, a secure mental health center on Coburg Road in Eugene that ultimately closed. The Columbia­Care opening was unrelated to the state action.

The Heeran Center housed a dozen people: seven residents under civil commitment and five acquittees under the supervision of the psychiatric board. They were moved to other homes after the closure.

Regulators reported there had been three escapes during a more than four-month period, including one by an acquittee, among other violations.

The operator, Eugene-based ShelterCare, surrendered the license on March 23. Last week, Lane County commissioners authorized officials to enter into a contract for a new provider to operate the Heeran Center. The search for the new provider will begin soon, and the county expects the new provider to reopen the center by June or July.

A 2013 commentary published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law showed that, from 1978 through 2011, 80 percent of the acquittees within Oregon’s system had committed felonies. Of those, it said, 5 percent had been charged with murder, 35 percent with class A felonies, which include first-degree rape and manslaughter; 21 percent with class B felonies, including first-degree aggravated theft; and 39 percent with class C felonies, which include second-degree burglary and third-degree robbery.

Britton said there has been a dearth of available beds in Lane County, requiring some acquittees to be housed in other counties away from their home community.

“You reduce risk (of reoffending) when you have clients who want to be placed in a particular location and have healthy supports,” she said.

But neighbors are unmoved and unconvinced, although they acknowledge the only problems they’ve observed with the home in its first weeks is acquittees smoking outside and an increase in vehicle traffic.

“We don’t need our kids that close to someone who can snap just like that,” said Gutierrez, the mother of three. “We have enough to worry about.”

Michele Heckel said the first inkling she got that a treatment home was moving into her neighborhood was when a moving van showed up in front of the vacant, nearly 4,900-square-foot home.

“They came in with no notice,” said Heckel, who bought her home there in 2011. “It just seems like they came in a little sneakily, under the radar and they spring this on us.”

Sewitsky said advance notice and the neighborhood opposition that invariably would arise from it violates the rights of acquittees.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states violate the Americans with Disabilities Act if they keep mentally ill acquittees in institutions rather than in the community, so long as their placement is deemed appropriate and can be reasonably accommodated. The federal Fair Housing Act requires access to housing for a mentally ill individual as long as they don’t pose a direct threat to the community.

“The law binds us on what we can do ahead of time,” Sewitsky said.

Some neighbors attended an open house in late February that Columbia­Care organized shortly before the acquittees moved in, but it didn’t change their opinion of the matter.

Mike Wetzell, who purchased his home neighboring the treatment home a month before Columbia­Care made its purchase, said the news has irrevocably degraded his quality of life. His wife, Julie, said one of the treatment home’s upstairs bedrooms looks down into their kitchen and dining room.

“It’s supposed to be our forever home,” he said. “It’s a nice, quiet cul-de-sac.”

Springfield City Councilor Sean VanGordon, who lives down the street from the treatment home, said he also was surprised and concerned by the opening of the treatment home, but he appeared more willing than other neighbors to give it the benefit of the doubt.

“What is the new normal?” he asked.