Teens pay for group home plot that never was

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2009 - 11:37 PM

The tidy foreclosed house on Hunters Trail in Centerville will remain vacant for now. Someday in the not-too-distant future, a family will likely snap it up, welcomed no doubt with cookies and smiles by grateful neighbors. Such a better scenario than the four sexual predators who almost lived there.

Except that sexual predators were never coming.

The villains of this piece were not the four teenagers, none of whom is a sex offender. Instead, they are the same shadowy figures who seem to be showing up with frustrating regularity at most public debates now: Small-mindedness, mistrust and misinformation.

And, as usual, the biggest losers are the most vulnerable. In this case, the four teenaged boys with developmental disabilities who craved, and deserved, a chance to move into adulthood nearer to their families.

Founded in 2001 by Chris Onken, Zumbro houses are located in 14 Twin Cities communities, as well as Mankato and Rochester. The homes offer 24-hour supervision for males, ages 15 to 19, facing a range of developmental disabilities, emotional and behavioral issues.

The homes, which can house no more than four clients each, enjoy a sterling reputation, according to client families.

"You know, if someone you knew was an alcoholic, where would you send them? Hazelden," said Linda Hurst of Blaine, the mother of three grown daughters, and four foster children with developmental disabilities. "If he has handicaps and you want to set him up for the rest of his life, where do you send him? Zumbro House."

This is likely why Anoka County a year ago invited Zumbro to build two homes in Centerville. Because the homes are treated like single-family dwellings, Zumbro had no obligation to alert neighbors to their arrival any more than you or I would be obligated to walk down a block where we'd like to buy a house and ask neighbors for permission. Trouble brewed as neighbors got wind of the plan and visited Zumbro's website (www.zumbrohouse.com).

It described some of its clients as having anger issues and having committed sexual offenses, although no sexual offenders were to be placed in either of the Centerville homes. In response, Onken quickly toned down the website's language, a decision he regrets because it fanned more flames of mistrust.

"I can absolutely understand their worry and concern," said Onken, who has a master's degree in psychology and has devoted his life to teens on the margins. "But we are not talking about predatory offenders or individuals who lurk in bushes and sexually assault someone."

He is talking about the reality of some developmentally delayed adolescent boys with normal urges who don't understand, for example, that exposing themselves is inappropriate. This is a far cry from sexual assault, and the trained staff who provide round-the-clock supervision quickly address any problems, said Onken.

But facing off against 125 neighbors at a community meeting a week ago, Onken wisely surmised that this was not the setting for a calm discussion on the differences in terminology.

"Get out and stay out!" one resident e-mailed him after the meeting. Another thanked Onken for remaining calm and suggested that he might want to buy her parents' home on St. Paul's East Side, "in a neighborhood that may be more receptive to a foster home."

"What were people supposed to think based on the website's information?" asked frustrated Anoka County Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah. "There was not a lot of trust left. He was a victim of his own website."

But if any website should be raising eyebrows, it's www.nozumbrohouse.com, where Sivarajah is just one of many public officials gleefully celebrating the fact that the home will no longer be in their backyards. Pamela Hoopes, legal director of the Minnesota Disability Law Center, is investigating whether public officials going on record with what she termed a "discriminatory opinion" violates federal and state fair-housing laws.

At the same time, Margaret Mead is likely turning over in her grave at Sivarajah's use of her famous quote: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." So what if it's used in reference to shutting out precisely the people the cultural anthropologist would have embraced? Here's a better Mead gem:

"The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends in large measure upon how our children grow up today."

That would be all of our children, including four from Anoka County who are trying to regroup. Hurst's 19-year-old son is one of them. Now living in a group home 45 minutes away, he attended Centerville schools and couldn't wait to move in 12 minutes from his family's house.

"He has never posed a threat to anyone in this community," Hurst said. "This is what's so sad to me. I really thought in my heart of hearts these people just didn't understand. They were scared and panicky. But my child posed no threat to that community. None."

Onken, who is now hearing from many residents in Centerville and beyond who support his efforts, wonders if he was too hasty in abandoning his plans. They include Nancy Aleshire, 58, of Brooklyn Park, who was "outraged" by the reception Onken received. She has a son with Asperger's and schizophrenia who lives in a Zumbro house in Minneapolis.

"It's in a very nice residential neighborhood," Aleshire said. "The residents gave the boys pointers on how to better their gardens."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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