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Neighbors share concerns over respite home stabbing

NORTHAMPTON — At a meeting Wednesday, residents of the Jackson Street area questioned how a house there that is meant to provide quiet respite for people in emotional distress or other crises could instead be the site of a stabbing May 17.

Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney told the 30 people who gathered at the Jackson Street School that she organized the meeting after getting several calls from residents concerned about the incident at the Afiya House.

Darreus Jaron Lisenby, 22, a resident who was staying at the house, was arrested May 17 after allegedly beating and stabbing a staff member with scissors and chasing her into the woods near the house. He pleaded not guilty to numerous charges and is being held without bail. A judge ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

While most people at the meeting seemed understanding that the attack was a rare event, they had questions about the decision to place the house so close to Jackson Street School. Others said they did not know 256 Jackson St. was a temporary home for people who may have mental health issues and wondered why staff at the house did not run background checks on potential residents, since Lisenby had a history of violent arrests in Georgia.

Four panelists who represent the agencies that oversee Afiya House told the audience that staff are careful whom they let stay at the house and that the violent attack was an “aberration.” It is the first violent arrest there since the house opened in August 2012, police said.

“We have to put this in perspective,” said Susan Sprung, central-west area director for the state Department of Mental Health. “Ninety-six percent of violent crimes are committed by people with no mental health conditions.”

Afiya House is run by the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community, part of the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium, and is funded by the state Department of Mental Health. The three-bedroom house is part of a non-clinical, peer-run service model in which trained staff — “peers” who have gone through trauma, addictions, psychiatric diagnoses or other issues in the past — provide voluntary, temporary housing to people experiencing emotional distress or other crises.

In addition to Sprung, answering questions at the meeting were John McNally, executive director and board chairman of the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium; Marylou Sullivan, executive director of the consortium; and Sera Davidow, director of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community.

McNally told the audience that the consortium board was “very concerned” about the incident and is investigating “every detail” of the attack and whether anything could have been done to prevent it.

He lives on nearby Gleason Road, he said, and has a nephew at Jackson Street School.

“I’m invested in the safety of this neighborhood, I think, as much as anyone else,” he said. Staff had “no inkling” Lisenby was dangerous. “It’s not a program designed to take in violent people,” he said.

Virginia Patenaude of Jackson Street said she was surprised there was no community dialogue about the house being set up in the neighborhood. Carney said no meetings were required because it was allowed by right according to zoning.

Patenaude also said she was concerned that people in need of respite services might knock on her door by accident because Afiya House does not have a sign. “And if someone’s running away (from Afiya House), they’re running through our backyards,” she said.

Davidow stressed that the residents at Afiya House are not vagrants or disturbed out-of-towners, they are people who live in the community who need a quiet place to stay for a week. “These people are generally already in our neighborhoods,” she said.

McNally said Lisenby was not homeless, but police have described him as living on the streets of Northampton. McNally said he could not explain the discrepancy due to privacy issues.

Others at the meeting asked whether Afiya House residents were free to come and go from the house and if they walked the bike path nearby. Sprung reiterated that residents come voluntarily and are as free to move about as they would be anywhere else in the community.

Mary Savarese of Prospect Avenue, a teacher’s aide at Jackson Street School, said she has thought about the attack when she is outside of the school with students. “Could this happen again? How did this happen?” she asked.

McNally said that while he could not guarantee it would not happen again, the inquiry will determine how management can minimize risks in the future.

Stephen Luippold of Hatfield, a mental health professional, said he attended the meeting because friends who live nearby were concerned about the stabbing. He asked if the staff who screened potential residents were licensed mental health clinicians and whether they reviewed any records about their mental health history.

Davidow said staff members undergo intensive “intentional peer support” training but are not licensed mental health clinicians. One or two staff are there at all times, she said.

In terms of the policy not to check the backgrounds of potential residents, Davidow said that sometimes approaching people with the context of their previous issues or episodes “can lead to more problems.”

“I’ve been through hospitalization and if someone followed me around with a file from seven years ago, that wouldn’t be particularly helpful,” she said.

After the meeting, Luippold said he thought the community would feel safer if neighbors knew that highly trained staff were on hand “if a crisis arises.”

“Crisis, hopefully, brings in change,” he said.

Davidow said the intake process does not involve background checks, mental health records checks or official mental health evaluations. Staff instead ask questions, including why they want to come to the house. “What we’re looking for is, ‘Is this a good match?’” Davidow said.

The qualifications are that residents must have a home to return to, must not present imminent harm to themselves or others, and can self-administer medication.

Susan Enz of Barrett Street said she has worked in homes for mentally ill and homeless people in the past. She urged her neighbors to see that “just because this happened once doesn’t mean it’s always going to happen.”

“Mentally ill people are in your community. They’re people’s parents, people’s kids, people’s partners or spouses,” she said.

Jackson Street School Principal Gwen Agna said that while violence in schools is always a concern for educators, most incidents are perpetrated by students at the school, not people from outside the building. The school locks doors and holds lockdown drills, she said, and she is confident students are safe on the school grounds.

McNally suggested having another meeting with residents when the investigation is complete, and Carney said she would help arrange and publicize it.

Sullivan said she expects there will be changes to report fairly soon, but she does not think the full report will be ready for discussion in the near future. While her part of the inquiry should be done within a week or two, it will need to be reviewed by many other people and offices before it will be completed, she said. Even then, privacy concerns may limit what can be released and thus the effectiveness of any further community forum, she said.

In terms of residents’ concerns about the intake process, she acknowledged that intake is the part of operations that is getting the most focus now. “I do expect we’ll probably make some changes, but probably more like tweaking, modest changes,” she said, as opposed to reversing policies on background checks.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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