Community outraged over rehab facility’s proximity to Federal Way district school

About 250 parents and community members packed the Woodmont K-8 gym Tuesday night to tell Valley Cities and government officials they don’t want the Woodmont Recovery Center near their children’s school.

About 250 parents and community members packed the Woodmont K-8 gym Tuesday night to tell Valley Cities and government officials they don’t want the Woodmont Recovery Center near their children’s school.

“I know there is a need for this kind of facility, it just does not need to be next to a grade school, not around children,” said Theresa Griswold, a Federal Way resident and mother of two, who both attend Woodmont, a Federal Way Public Schools facility in Des Moines. “There has to be a better solution than putting it literally within feet of children. Someone has to speak for the kids.”

About 20-25 percent of Woodmont’s students live in Federal Way due to school boundaries.

The evaluation and treatment center will serve the mentally ill and those addicted to drugs or alcohol through inpatient psychiatric treatment. It is scheduled to break ground in Des Moines this fall with completion in late spring 2016.

And it’s less than 1,000 feet from the school, located at South 272nd Street and Pacific Highway South.

Although five buildings are planned for the entire 8-acre campus, including a methadone dispensary, Ken Taylor, the chief executive officer of Valley Cities, said they only have funds for the evaluation and treatment center, which will house 16 involuntary beds and eight voluntary beds.

But Auburn mental health workers Melissa Lathum and Tara Brinson said working with the mentally ill and drug addicted is dangerous.

“There is a need for treatment centers, we have a huge problem with drug addiction, there’s no doubt about it,” Lanthum said. “Putting children next door to addicts is insanity.”

Lanthum said she has to carry a whistle wherever she goes and is always aware of whether there’s weapons nearby, emergencies, suicidal individuals and violence.

“They poop in the middle of the sidewalks because they’re mentally ill, they’re addicts, they have a problem. Do you want your kids next door to that?” Lanthum asked the crowd, to which they replied, “No!”

Brinson, who has worked in a methadone clinic for seven years as a chemical dependency professional, said she’s witnessed crimes directed towards her, her vehicle and coworkers.

“A methadone client, a heroin addict, a hardcore banger who doesn’t seem to care about anything but their next fix,” she said. “They’ve hurt people in my presence, they’ve punched my coworkers, they’ve slashed tires. Their brain damage is far more than most of you understand.”

Brinson, a Federal Way resident, warned the community to lock their windows and doors, get alarm systems and don’t let a pharmacist announce prescribed oxycodone is ready for pickup.

Taylor said the people Brinson and Lanthum described are already in the community today.

“There are tens of thousands of people with mental health issues and substance abuse disorders,” he told the crowd. “Most of us, if we could be honest, know somebody in our family that’s experienced one or both, or maybe even experienced it ourselves.”

Taylor said they’re currently at libraries and along Pacific Highway.

“Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a heroin epidemic in this country,” he said. “We have a heroin epidemic in King County. We have more than a person a day dying from heroin overdoses.”

This year, King County turned away more than 3,000 psychiatric patients who were involuntarily committed because there was no place for them to go.

Taylor said he would be happy to negotiate with neighbors, the city and county to create a good neighbor agreement that would focus on who will be in the evaluation and treatment center, who will not be there, how to respond to emergencies, how to provide security and how they’ll use law enforcement and emergency staff.

But the overwhelming majority of concerned citizens said they understood the need for mental health and addiction services just not why it is near a school.

Kelly Carlile, also a Federal Way mother whose children attend Woodmont, said she went into the meeting with low expectations and left feeling like officials were “beating a dead horse.”

“Everybody is fully aware and in full support of helping the mentally ill and drug addicts,” she said.

Tad Doviak suggested there must be other places.

“I’m for mental health facilities, but, man, like everybody’s saying, we’ve got to find a better place,” Doviak said.

Taylor said Valley Cities “scoured” all of South King County looking for a site to build the treatment center and only found two. They first made an offer on a location in Auburn but it was sold to another party.

“If it does not happen here, I can say with almost 100 percent certainty, there’s nowhere in South King County that can fit the zoning requirements,” Taylor said to a crowd that responded with “boos.”

Carlile wants the city of Des Moines to rezone land for the facility.

“There’s little kids that walk right past it (the property) and I see a lot of them by themselves, walking right past an area where drug addicts like to loiter,” Carlile said. “I’m very concerned and what’s frustrating is everyone seems unaware of it, especially some Federal Way residents.”

Many concerned citizens wondered how this could have happened without their knowledge notices were only sent out to residents living 600 feet from the facility’s property.

Des Moines city manager Tony Piasecki said, in addition to notifying the nearby residents, the city had a public hearing on April 3 in which 17 people testified.

The Hearing Examiner ruled on April 18 that Valley Cities should enter into a separate agreement to mitigate the impact on public services, which will be approved at least five months before the city issues the certificate of occupancy.

After about a year of the facility being open, the Hearing Examiner will then reopen the hearing and take testimony on the impact of the facility to learn whether the mitigation measures are working or if new ones need to be added.

The city of Des Moines also informed Federal Way Public Schools superintendent and Woodmont’s principal, however, he did admit the city should have reached farther to its residents.

“An official notice was mailed to Federal Way School Administration and I personally reached out by phone to the school administration to explain our plans,” Taylor said. “The administration did not submit a statement to the hearing examiner or appear at the Conditional Use Permit hearing on April 3.”

However, Federal Way Public Schools Superintendent Tammy Campbell and Assistant Superintendent Sally McLean, along with district staff, attended the community meeting and met again Wednesday morning to discuss a comprehensive review of the current security and safety measures for Woodmont.

The district will look at current practices and procedures, which include safety around school bus stops and training for teachers and staff.

“We’ll develop a safety plan for staff and students as needed and be responsive to any new concerns from this facility,” said school district spokeswoman Ann Cook, adding that in the event the district feels there needs to be additional training or procedures, it will make adjustments. “We heard the concerns, we heard the passion in people’s voices and every day we understand we have the most important person in their life, their child. One of our priorities is their child’s safety.”

Carlile said in spite of it all she was grateful for the huge sense of community she felt at the meeting.

“The presence of the superintendent and teacher at the school and knowing the school district cared, that was huge because I don’t feel attached to Des Moines, I live in Federal Way,” she said.

Both Carlile and Griswold said, as much as they love and connect with the school’s community, they’re unsure if they’ll keep their children there if the recovery center doesn’t change locations.

“… And that’s heartbreaking because the teachers are amazing, the staff is amazing,” Griswold said. “I’ve never worried about [my children’s] safety but now that this is going in, I’m very fearful of my children and their classmates and the staff, they work so hard.”

Last August, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to board psychiatric patients in emergency rooms for hours before beds become available.

King County, the main funder of the project, opened a request for proposal for the project, in which Valley Cities, a nonprofit that serves low-income mental health patients in Federal Way and South King County, responded.

Jim Vollendroff, a mental health and substance abuse director for King County Human Services, said there are currently 500 people who travel from South King County to downtown Seattle to get treatment every day.

“These are your friends, these are your neighbors that already live in your community and they don’t have treatment available to them,” he said. “We need to bring treatment to them so people can remain in recovery.”