City played no role in permitting mental health group home on McGratch Street

LACONIA — In the wake of the recent homicide at a local mental health support home on McGrath St. at least one person in the neighborhood said they were distressed to learn the home had changed in 2004 from one of constant supervision to one of less supervision.
Mike Persson, an attorney and at-large member of the School Board, said he knew there was a group home nearby when he and his family bought their home on McGrath St. in the late 1990s but wished they had been told of the change from "group home" to "support home."
"When we moved into the neighborhood in 1997, it was our understanding that it was to always be a supervised group home and, due to the nature of the neighborhood, that the residents of the home were all to have been fully screened and deemed not to exhibit any risk of violent behavior," he wrote in a letter to The Daily Sun late last week.
He also said that for the most part, the Genesis-owned home was a very good neighbor and people in the close-knit neighborhood had few, if any, complaints.
In the early morning hours of June 10, police went to the home and found 27-year-old Zachary March unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Nineteen-year-old Kasey Riley, who had been living in the large frame house for less than a month, was charged with one count of second-degree homicide. The Daily Sun has since learned from a resident of the apartment house where Riley lived prior to moving to McGrath Street was that he was medicated and had allegedly abused his medication, occasionally running out before his prescription was set to renew.
The Daily Sun also learned the house had changed from a supervised "group home" to an less-supervised "support home" from Genesis Behavioral Health Director Maggie Pritchard the day after the alleged homicide. The change occurred before Pritchard became director.
Genesis Behavioral Health is a non-profit regional mental health agency that works under contract with the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.
One of the questions posed by Persson, as well as former neighbor County Commissioner Ed Philpot and his wife Diane, was whether or not the neighbors should have been notified by Genesis when the home changed from "group" to "support."
The short answer is no. The city was not officially involved at the time.
According to the Health and Human Services code of administrative rules, as of October 25, 2006, the state must be notified in writing of any changes in services or scope of services 30 days before the change. It is not known what its policy was prior to late 2006, however the section — identified as #8746 — indicates it is new.
Former Genesis Executive Director Michael Coughlin, who was there during the time the McGrath St. home changed status, said the direction taken was clinically-driven and that research into mental illness over time has shown that people who receive support tend to fare better than do those in supervised or secure facilities.
He said the short modern history of mental health treatment came when the state institutions around the nation began to close in the late 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s. The Laconia State Hospital closed for good in 1991.
"Many people just ended up on the streets," Coughlin said, noting some of them had been in secure facilities for nearly their entire lives and had few skills that would enable them to find work or housing.
He said "group homes" sprang up throughout the country to help the mentally challenged adjust to their new situation. Coughlin said group homes have gradually morphed into support homes because, overall, the people respond better and improvements in mental health the change supported by the data. He described it as a "philosophy of cure."
"In the 1990s we started creating small homes because the goal was the "least restrictive environment".
He also said people with mental health challenges are far more likely to hurt themselves that others.
"Rare is the situation where a person with mental health issues is violent, although these situations often make the news," Coughlin said.
As to the history of 24 McGrath St., what was then the Lakes Region Mental Health Center, Inc. purchased the house in 1987 from Carol and John Durcharme.
Carol Ducharme is now Carol Brody. She remembered that what is now Genesis had a particular interest in the home because it is directly behind their office facility on North Main Street and there is a path that connects the two.
She recalled some of the neighbors at the time being very upset at the purchase.
A former Genesis employee who asked not to be identified said a series of informal meeting with neighbors individually and in group setting was held but there was no official role for the city of Laconia to play
Coughlin remembered changing from group to support stauts and said he stands by the decision. He said it was vetted through the Genesis Board of Directors but he also didn't recall the city having any role.
The Philpots remembered meeting repeated with members of Lakes Region Mental Health Center, Inc. and said that aside from some exterior garbage issues on the wooded lot next door in the early years of the group home, there were no problems with it or its residents.
"I remember them being older and pretty much staying to themselves," said Ed Philpot who added that he got to know some of the residents. He also said that, at least as far as his family and the people who he knew, they were also good neighbors to the people in the home and they were good neighbors to them.
He recalled some fear and hostility at first but said it slowly ebbed over time. He also said the neighbors were comforted to a degree by knowing the home was supervised — especially during the nights and weekends.
Philpot, who has stayed close to his old neighborhood, and Persson noted in the past few years there has been a younger group of people living in the home and more foot and vehicle traffic than before.
The Philpots said they, too, felt the neighbors should have been notified when the scope of service changes from "group" to "support."
Coughlin said "there's nothing magic about a group home that makes it violence-proof."
He said anyone who thinks violence can't happen in a group home is wrong. "It's not a prison," he added.
Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment minutes from 1989 have no mention of the home going before any city land use board and former Planning Board members David Stamps and Atty. David Bownes also have no recollection of any board involvement.
The Laconia City Codes defined "Assisted Living Facility" for the first time in an ordinance change passed in 1997 and amended in 2000.
The definition included "residences or living facilities, including nursing homes licensed by the state of New Hampshire, which provide communal support facilities which may include housekeeping, medical services, recreational, social activities or transportation."
Permitting an assisted living facility in a RG (residential) neighborhood now involves getting a special exception from the Zoning Board.
In June of 1989 and June of 1990, there were two building permits approved for 24 McGrath Street, the first to add a fire escape and half bath to the third floor and to complete the fire alarm system. The second was some interior renovation to the two apartments in the rear-most segment of the building.
Police Capt. Bill Clary said police went there more when it was a supervised home than they do now.
As to crime in the neighborhood, Clary said there is no more crime in that neighborhood nor is the typical crime report different than in other similar neighborhoods in the city.