Within one month, Fairfax County rejected a proposal to establish a shelter in Vienna for battered wives and ruled that a home for emotionally disturbed children cannot remain in a Falls Church neighborhood without a special permit.
Both decisions, which some social service workers believe could threaten the status of other group homes, resulted from virulent community opposition.
The county planning commission turned down the proposal for the Vienna shelter after a long and heated public hearing in early July. And last week, County Zoning Administrator Philip G. Yates ruled that the home for six emotionally disturbed children in Bavenwood Park violated county zoning regulations. His decision came after area residents protested the group home being in their neighborhood.
Yet the need for small, community-based facilities - often lumped together under the name "group homes" - continues to grow as citizen opposition mounts.
Following a national trend, Virginia is emptying out its mental institutions and expecting communities to help former patients make a transition to everyday life.
"Virginia has reduced its inpatient load by 50 percent during the last six years," said Jay Watson, executive director of the Fairfax-Falls Church Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services Board, which operates six group homes in the county. "And where are these people going to go? There's a real grassroots battle coming from community-based services to build more group homes to meet the growing need."
Fairfax County has 18 group homes that serve the mentally retarded, mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, the children of broken homes or poor families and runaways. Each home has three to six residents. In addition, there are many foster homes that give temporary shelter to children and adults awaiting permanent homes, and several special apartments and other facilities for alcoholics and drug abusers with as many as 20 residents.
Establishment of the homes began in the early 1970s and their number has increased steadily since then. Their growth prompted the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in June to ask for changes in zoning laws that would require public hearings and special-use permits for all group homes. In September, the board will review a comprehensive policy governing the establishment of group homes in the county.
That policy and the zoning administrator's ruling on the Ravenwood Park group home reflect the new hard look that area jurisdictions are taking at group homes.
"What it comes down to is a moral issue," said Janis Schiff of the Services Board, and a former director of a group home for the mentally retarded at Bailey's Crossroads."Is the community going to accept the disabled and provide for them or not?"
Many group home operators in Fairfax County are waiting to see how the Ravenwood Park ruling will apply to other group homes. Yates ruled that the home did not constitute a family - thus violating single-family residential zoning - because the persons living there were not permanent residents and were supervised by a rotating staff rather than live-in houseparents. Under the ruling, the Ravenwood Park home and others like it would have to go before public hearings and receive special use permits to remain in their neighborhoods.
"I'm not pleased with the zoning administrator's ruling," said John P. Bryant, administrative director for Environments for Human Services, which operates Ravenwood Park and two other homes for the county Department of Social Services. "But I'm hoping it will have a beneficial effect in the long run. There haven't been adequate laws to deal with group homes or those who need them: maybe this is the beginning of focusing on the problem."
His opinion was echoed by several other group home operators who are at once fearful of the possible effects of the new ruling but also hopeful that it will help "open a dialogue" between the community and those who provide group home services.
"At least it (the zoning ruling) may bring the issue of group homes to a head, clarify the issue so everyone finally knows what the rules are," said Watson of the Services Board. "It will depend a lot on the procedure. If every group home is open to a huge emotional public hearing, it will give the opportunity for people who might otherwise accept a home quietly to get on the bandwagon of opposition. That could be very bad unless we start some strong community education that will bring out vocal advocates for group homes."
He said the Services Board is ready to open six more group homes - including ones for the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed children, adolescent girls and a receiving home for persons leaving mental institutions - but is waiting until the new county policy is approved.
"We have to wait and see what will happen," said Marialis Zmuda of Fold, Inc., a private, nonprofit organization that operates two group homes in Fairfax and three in Alexandria. "Group homes are not a panacea, but they are a very effective way for people who need help to live together. Things are going on in group homes that are too good to abandon, when you see somebody finally be able to go out and make it on their own."