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Much to Their Chagrin 

The fight over a psych program gives a black eye to Chagrin Falls.

The center of controversy: Windsor Hospital CEO - Donald Sykes. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • The center of controversy: Windsor Hospital CEO Donald Sykes.
Her husband is dead, and her kids have long since moved away, but Norma Pomeroy isn't going anywhere. "Forget it," says the 72-year-old. "I wouldn't move out of here for anything."

Pomeroy's sentiments are hardly unique -- at least not for someone who's lived most of her life in Chagrin Falls, the tony village that has long been Northeast Ohio's nearest approximation of a Norman Rockwell painting. Prosperous and picturesque, it's not the kind of place people up and leave; it is a place people hope to move to someday.

This is a town, after all, that once turned down a $500,000 grant for traffic lights because federal restrictions on the money would have prohibited lights that were more in line with village residents' aesthetic tastes.

Over the last several months, however, some denizens of Chagrin Falls have done much to make sure the welcome mat isn't rolled out for at least one group of prospective residents: two dozen 9- to 12-year-old boys who would live just down the street from Pomeroy, at Windsor Behavioral Health Network, a psychiatric hospital that has called Chagrin Falls home for more than 100 years.

With town residents, public officials, and hospital administrators fighting it out over a laundry list of Not-in-My-Back-Yard issues -- everything from school costs to safety to the prospect of diminished property values -- the tension over Windsor Hospital has accomplished the one thing few thought possible: It's made Chagrin Falls look ugly.

The problems started last spring, when Windsor publicly unveiled a plan to convert 24 of its acute-care beds to a residential treatment program for young males "experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties."

The decision sprang from the demand by Cuyahoga County's Department of Children and Family Services, which is often forced to send kids who need residential psychological treatment to facilities in distant counties and sometimes other states. "These are our kids, and I'm sending far too many of them outside the county," says DCFS Executive Director William M. Denihan. "It's a disservice to these children and their families to do that."

Indeed, Windsor would often treat children on an emergency basis, only to find that, when the child was ready to move to less-restrictive care, there wasn't a bed available nearby. "When we saw kids on an acute basis in the hospital, we found that there was just no place for them to go, once we stabilized them," says Windsor CEO Donald Sykes.

But Windsor's offer to accommodate Cuyahoga's strained social service system didn't create a groundswell of enthusiasm among Chagrin Falls residents, especially after rumors surfaced in May that some of the children in the program might be referred from juvenile court, and that the kids would be "mainstreamed" into the Chagrin Falls school district.

The part about delinquents wasn't true, but the prospect of the kids going to Chagrin Falls schools was real enough -- at least at first -- meaning the children raised within Chagrin Falls' warm embrace could soon find themselves sitting in class next to troubled kids who more than likely had grown up amid poverty and indifference in Cleveland.

"I know these kids have to get educated. And I think it's an obligation that, if they're here, we have to do something about it, but I don't know if I like the kids being put in the mainstream [schools]," says Pomeroy, echoing the reaction of many Chagrin residents.

In response, the Chagrin Falls Village Council proposed a bevy of ordinances aimed at securing "special hospitals" in Chagrin Falls, of which there is exactly one: Windsor. Among them was a requirement that a security guard accompany any two or more patients when they leave hospital premises, and that the village could shut down the facility if it failed to follow any of its security ordinances.

Such maneuvering didn't sit well with hospital officials or with Denihan, whose department already has hundreds of kids waiting for residential care. In July, he told the Chagrin Valley Times that the proposed ordinances reflected "thinly veiled intolerance" in Chagrin Falls.

Chagrin Falls Mayor Lydia Champlin, not surprisingly, disagrees there's a subtext of prejudice, saying the proposed ordinances were as much about protecting the children at Windsor as they were about town safety. "We have no profile on the background, the lives of these young people that will be part of the residential treatment center. We want to make the transition for these children coming into Chagrin Falls -- living in the village -- as comfortable as possible; that they are well protected, that they feel very secure. By the same token, I want my residents to feel very secure, too."

Denihan, however, is wary of that rationale, saying the whole mess has become a political issue. "The bottom line is that these are our kids, and to suggest that they shouldn't be in our backyard or in any community for the safety of other children is really troublesome," he says. "These children come into our system at no fault of their own. They are innocent, and they are not bad children."

After being caught off guard by the initial response, Windsor officials have tried to quell tensions by being more proactive. The hospital set up a new website, hired a media liaison, and formed an advisory council with local citizens such as Pomeroy.

Most important, though, has been its decision to back off having the kids in the residential treatment program mainstreamed into Chagrin Falls schools. Instead, the hospital will lease an empty cottage on its property where at least some kids will be taught.

Nevertheless, plenty of bad vibes continue to linger around the issue, with the latest round of complaints stemming from the fact that Windsor is a for-profit facility. "I guess I don't like the hospital being owned by a big corporate company," says Pomeroy. "Little Chagrin isn't very big for that."

All the hubbub, however, has obscured one little thing: It doesn't really matter what village officials or residents think. The only thing that's kept the hospital from opening the residential program so far is not opposition from neighbors. It's the Ohio Department of Mental Health, which has yet to sign off on fire-code issues the hospital had to resolve. Approval is expected in the next month, Sykes says.

And while most kids in Windsor's care will be taught on the hospital's grounds, some Windsor kids could still be mainstreamed. Under federal law, any child able and willing to attend Chagrin Falls schools must be given the opportunity to do so.

Even the controversy over the proposed security ordinances -- which have yet to be taken up by the full village council -- may amount to much ado about very little. It has become increasingly unlikely that the measures will be passed as originally proposed, if at all. And if they were, says Windsor's attorney, Stephen G. Thomas, it probably wouldn't be long before the village found itself litigating a civil rights lawsuit in federal court.

"I think we will have no trouble finding lawyers and public bodies willing to help us go to court over it," he says.

And try finding a Norman Rockwell painting of that scene.

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