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ServiceNet makes case for Longmeadow group home

July 24, 2014 | Chris Maza

LONGMEADOW – In a cordial discussion with the Select Board, representatives of ServiceNet explained their operation and supported their belief that the organization had the legal right to operate a group home in the town.

At the July 21 Select Board meeting, ServiceNet President and CEO Susan Stubbs, along with Bruce Barshefsky, vice president of Administration and Finance, and Abbas Hamdan, vice president of Developmental and Brain Injury Services, spoke to the legitimacy a pair of proposed group homes, located on Redfern Drive and Converse Street. Stubbs also noted that by law, the homes were legal use of the properties in question.

The proposed homes, which would serve men who suffered traumatic brain injuries and acquired brain injuries, were openly criticized by residents while board members raised questions of zoning and legality at an earlier meeting, in spite of legal opinions from Town Counsel David Martel and the town’s land use attorneys at Kopelman and Paige, P.C., that a group home was a permitted use.

On July 7, Martel said the home was a legitimate use of a single-family home according to the town’s zoning bylaws and even if it did not, it would qualify for an exception under the Dover Amendment, which states that a zoning bylaw cannot restrict the use of land owned by a nonprofit educational corporation.

The board voted at that meeting to request ServiceNet’s presence at a meeting and that the group homes not be occupied until the matter is settled.

Selectman Alex Grant questioned the kinds of educational activities that would take place within the home, but Stubbs said whether the properties would qualify under the Dover Amendment was immaterial because federal law permits the existence of group homes.

“There is a lot of education going on, but I think it is incidental to the conversation,” she said. “My understanding is that it’s not relevant and if we were opening a group home for people who had an IQ so low that they couldn’t learn anything, if it was a group of very, very severely developmentally disabled people, that they still have the right to live in the community among regular people.”

Stubbs also hinted that requiring a group home to adhere to different standards could be seen as discriminatory. Earlier in the conversation, she also noted that the company, which runs 38 group homes, including eight for those with traumatic brain injury, has never had to appear before a town board before the placement of residents in any home before, including the one the firm has operated in Longmeadow for the past four years.

“Asking a group home, a group of people or an agency that is opening a group home for a group of people with disabilities to go through any hoops other than the general public would be the same thing as you saying, ‘You can’t move in here because you’re African American or some other category.’ That’s my understanding of the law,” she said.

In a formal presentation, to the board, Stubbs explained that ServiceNet employed 1,100 people and served 10,000 clients a year with a total annual budget of $51 million a year. Of that total, the organization serves 237 people with 332 total staff in its developmental disability and brain injury department.

“Since I have been involved with the organization for 34 years, I have been involved in the opening of all of the group homes, except for the three that that existed before I came. I want to say I totally understand people’s concerns, I don’t resent [them and] it doesn’t make us angry that people are concerned about these homes. It’s a natural human reaction when it’s the unknown,” Stubbs said. “People don’t know who these people are when they move next door and it’s not at all unusual for people to be very anxious and concerned when they find out there’s going to be a group home in their community.”

ServiceNet could not be specific about the needs or programs in which the clients of the group homes in question would participate, citing privacy laws, but Hamdan said each of the two homes would consist of four residents each. The residents of the homes would be selected through a closed referral system by the state and ServiceNet.

Staff working at the homes would be screened through a Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, check, trained in CPR, first aid, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, also known as HIPAA, regulations, fire safety and would also receive specific clinical training based on the disability of those they serve, he added. He explained that the organization took a layered approach to managing its facilities with employees at four or five different levels of seniority and responsibility overseeing operations.

Addressing property concerns, Barshefsky said ServiceNet has full-time staff whose job it is to keep up the houses and apartments the company owns and rents, utilizing an in-house real estate department whose staff includes licensed contractors and carpenters and uses licensed professionals for building modifications, maintenance and landscaping.

“We’re not perfect. We may be late in mowing the lawn or trimming the hedges or other issues might come up. When that occurs, tell us. We will be responsive,” he said. “We provide phone numbers or email addresses for program managers, the CEO and, for property issues, our maintenance supervisor. He knows our properties intimately and cares for each of them as if it was his own. If you have a problem with it, he’s going to have a problem with it.”

Barshefsky added that any property value concerns “should be laid to rest” because research has shown that group homes have not had a significant impact in that regard.

Selectman Paul Santaniello stated that among his concerns was the fact that ServiceNet did not approach neighbors prior to beginning work on the home to ready it for use as a group home. Stubbs explained that while the organization, which is state funded, used to employ that practice, it has since been advised that doing so is against the law.

“We used to do that; we’d love to do that, actually. It used to be built into the [state] regulations,” she said. “The lawyers for the state of Massachusetts were challenged on that and the regulation was changed and we were told the cease and desist any such activity because it breaks the law.”

She added that in her experience, in some instances, those conversations can exacerbate people’s fears.

Selectman Mark Gold said he saw the group home as an “absentee landlord approach” and also brought up the issue of “numerous complaints” about work being performed by contractors after 11 p.m. and cars parked on the lawns.

“One would have thought if you would come in and been quietly rehabbing the house, it would have flown under the radar, but it was kind of an in-your-face, ‘look what we’re doing here’ with saws going at midnight and hammers pounding and windows open and cars parked literally all over the lawns, which they were today,” he said. “So I guess the question is how do you justify that compared to the concerns of the neighborhood?”

Stubbs said she had heard no complaints and Barshefsky said concerns were brought to his attention “after the fact.” Stubbs said in the future, town officials or residents should feel free to contact ServiceNet directly with concerns.

“We have a very close relationship with the owner and if anyone is being disturbed, night or day, call me, wake me up and we’ll stop it immediately,” she said.

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