Neighbors voice concerns with group home in Athens Township

Debbie Griffin

Isanti County News

Mark Brostrom, operations manager for the state-operated Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge for the past 10 months, hosted a neighborhood meeting Saturday in the Athens Township house, where the organization begins operating this month.

The state-operated Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge hosted a neighborhood meeting Saturday morning in the Athens Township house, where the organization begins operating this month. The home sits on 2 acres along Lincoln Drive south of Stratton Lake.

The state-operated Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge hosted a neighborhood meeting Saturday morning in the Athens Township house, where the organization begins operating this month. The home sits on 2 acres along Lincoln Drive south of Stratton Lake. Photo by Jon Tatting

The home sits on 2 acres along Lincoln Drive south of Stratton Lake and in the northeast portion of Athens Township. The Health System will also begin operating on another property, located on 6 acres, northwest of Cambridge near Moon Lake on 336th Avenue.

The two homes are opening due to the Health System moving out of its current location on East Rum River Drive South in Cambridge.

Brostrom explained the Health System primarily deals with developmentally disabled individuals.

He said they may come from a group home or hardship environment and may have nowhere to go. Some have lived with their parents or been on their own. Brostrom said the new community-based setting does not accept sex offenders.

Clients stay for a maximum of 90 days, which Brostrom said helps them alleviate stress long enough to focus on the root of their issues. The assistance aims to help clients make a positive transition to a permanent place.

He emphasized the extent of the staff’s training: Two of the local employees hold doctorate degrees and have at least 4,000 hours of supervised training.

Brostrom said the local house is licensed to accommodate four clients. A total staff of 14 people will work there at different times, with a minimum number of two employees overnight. The required staff-to-client ratio is 1:1 at all times, including outdoors, and each employee carries a cellphone.

The manager said two court decisions formed different standards of caring for mentally disabled people.

According to ada.gov, the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead ruling prohibits “unjustified segregation” of persons with disabilities. The decision established that when reasonably possible, public entities must provide community-based services.

The 2011 Jensen Settlement resulted in closure of the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options facility in Cambridge. The lawsuit originated with a complaint about the inappropriate use of restraints and seclusion.

Brostrom said the efforts focus on creating a loving atmosphere as opposed to placing a person into a stressful situation.

Residents react to the news

About a dozen neighbors, including the township chairman and a supervisor, as well as Isanti County Chief Deputy Sheriff Chris Caulk, attended the meeting.

One neighbor said more than 20 cars had been parked along the street that week then declared, “We don’t want that.” Brostrom explained the previous week had been training for all staff, meaning more cars than usual.

Another person said neighbors feared the possibility of increased police activity, runaways and a constant turnover of new neighbors. Many residents agreed they moved to the neighborhood to feel safe, but don’t anymore.

The people said a rural location for such treatment services seems wrong; it’s farther away from police services and has dense woods adjacent to it. They wanted to know why Minnesota Specialty Health System-Cambridge would pick a home in a rural development instead of one with nothing around it.

Brostrom said a group chooses the places based on what’s available to lease with the appropriate space and cost. He said open space in a non-urban setting can help put clients at ease.

One homeowner said he’d been waiting to sell and just when property values began to creep up, “this comes.” Another said it seems like the clients’ successful transition “is at our expense.”

One person asked, “What will your staff be able to do for the safety of this community?”

Brostrom said the staff members are well trained to step directly in and stop any unwanted behavior. A woman asked if the health care workers could “take a person to the ground” if need be.

Brostrom said yes, if absolutely necessary, they do have that training. He said experts are focused on evaluating a client’s medication and behavioral characteristics, as well as levels of therapy and support.

The system manager said the house has alarms on all doors and windows and “delayed egress.” Clients are not restricted from going places but always go with a staff member.

Some people said they’d be foolish to continue operating as usual – letting children ride bikes, visit each other’s house, use the wooded trails, play outside or walk the dog.

A person questioned the policy that some clients may have committed crimes but aren’t competent to attend court, saying it would be scary to have neighbors who don’t know right from wrong.

Brostrom said competence means that a person must be able understand charges brought against them, and some clients don’t. He reiterated the local home does not accept high-risk clients or dangerous, predatory people.

“We’re not intentionally trying to cause fear,” Brostrom said. “We’re trying to be good neighbors.”

The residents asserted the system had “obviously” tried to keep its arrival quiet. Someone had seen inspectors at the property in November and few had heard anything about the plan before it appeared in last week’s Isanti County News.

One neighbor commented the whole process seems to have plenty of consideration for potential clients but none for existing neighbors.

Brostrom said meetings had been planned and the health care employees had been rushing to schedule them as they meet new requirements, move clients from Cambridge and train for new procedures.

The neighbors continued questioning.

How many cars would be there each day? Two or three. Can they be kept off the street? Yes. Will clients wear uniforms? No.

Can neighbors stop by to meet the supervisor on duty? Yes. Will it be the same supervisors every day? Yes. Is there a generator to power the alarms in case of power failure? No.

Will there ever be a fence? Possibly. Could there be surveillance-type video cameras installed? No. Can clients earn privileges to spend time alone? It’s possible but “highly unlikely.” How old are clients? 18 years or older, and the majority younger than 30.

One woman asked Brostrom directly, “How would you feel if this was going in beside your six kids?” He replied, “I think I’d be OK with it.”

The manager explained he has eight children and emphasized that his comfort level comes from knowing the level of training staff members have and the procedures they follow.

The group members said they attended the meeting to assert themselves and ask the health system to rethink its rural-placement strategy and lack of communication with neighborhoods.

One group member said, “We would hope you don’t do this to the next community.”

Caulk proposed forming a neighborhood-watch group, and one of the town supervisors agreed to organize it.

Caulk said the person to contact about overall changes to health policy is Minnesota Rep. Brian Johnson.

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