D.C. residents question concentration of group homes

Ward 4 residents Rachel Barham and James Rogers complain about the profanity-laced outbursts from the group home next door.
Ward 4 residents Rachel Barham and James Rogers complain about the profanity-laced outbursts from the group home next door. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 2010

No place in the District has more group homes than Ward 4, and residents are asking why.

Covering a swath of Northwest and Northeast Washington from Petworth up to the northern tip of the city, Ward 4 contains nearly a quarter of the 338 group homes regulated by the city's social service agencies. Of the 113 group homes serving people with developmental disabilities, 47 of them, or more than 40 percent, are in Ward 4.

Community leaders say such homes, typically run by private providers under contract with the city, have become too concentrated, particularly in and around Takoma.

The community has "always had a tradition of tolerance," said Jackie Jones, president of the Takoma D.C. Neighborhood Association. "We believe in a diverse neighborhood in the broadest sense of the term, but there's a limit to what any neighborhood can take."

Since the closure of Forest Haven, the city's institution for people with developmental disabilities, almost two decades ago, the District has struggled to integrate people with developmental disabilities into the community. A class-action suit filed in 1976 over care at Forest Haven has yet to be settled.

The long-simmering concerns in Ward 4 reflect the challenges that confront the District decades after deinstitutionalization began to transform the way the city cares not only for the developmentally disabled but also for the mentally ill and for children who are abused, neglected or delinquent. From the shrinking of St. Elizabeths, the city's public psychiatric hospital, to the shuttering of Oak Hill, the city's former juvenile detention center, the District has been moving to community-based services for all but the most acute, vulnerable or dangerous people in its care.

Although the number of group homes is greatest in Ward 4, wards 5, 7 and 8 each have more than 60 group homes. Ward 3, the city's wealthiest area, has two.

In Ward 5, which like Ward 4 has many single-family residences, most of the group homes serve people with developmental disabilities or mental illness. Ward 7 has more juvenile justice homes than any other part of the city, which may reflect the fact that 55 percent of young people under the supervision of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services are from Ward 7 and neighboring Ward 8.

And the group homes in Ward 8 include a third of the 77 in the District that house foster children who have not been placed in family homes. Almost 40 percent of the District's 2,100 foster children are from Ward 8, according to the Child and Family Services Agency.

Collectively, the group homes overseen by the District house 2,000 to 3,000 people.

Respecting the neighbors

At a community meeting this month in Takoma, almost all of the residents who addressed the city's attorney general and the heads of the mental health, juvenile justice, child welfare and developmental disabilities agencies voiced support for the notion that the disabled and vulnerable should be able to live in District neighborhoods.

But speaker after speaker said the city has failed to respect the rights of other residents, providing little if any notice about homes opening in their communities, offering no easy way to complain when problems arise and permitting homes to cluster in particular neighborhoods.

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