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Outcry Halts Desert Rehab Center

The state backs off plans for a sex-offender group home in tiny Phelan after San Bernardino County supervisors vote to sue to block it.

March 17, 2004|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

State officials have temporarily halted plans to open a group home for developmentally disabled sex offenders in Phelan, saying they could not guarantee residents' safety because of the strong outcry from angry neighbors.

Tuesday's decision came only hours after the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted to sue the state to stop the facility from opening in the tiny desert community.

The home, the first of its kind in California, has triggered protests by Phelan residents who say the sex offenders would pose a threat to their children and families.

"It's a flimsy, no-security facility," said Supervisor Bill Postmous, who represents the Phelan area. "It's not right and it won't be tolerated by this board."

Postmous said the county's lawsuit would charge that the state's Department of Developmental Services and the operator of the home -- Phoenix Programs Inc. of Concord -- are planning to open a "criminal detention facility" using a state law meant to establish group homes for the disabled. The lawsuit will be filed in the next two weeks.

The group home, located off a dirt road, was scheduled to open March 8 but has remained empty since residents began protesting and holding vigils to prevent the facility from opening. One of the loudest protests took place Tuesday, when radio talk show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou from KFI-AM (640) in Los Angeles began a live broadcast outside the house.

During the rally, the hosts and some guests referred to the sex offenders as "animals, perverts and predators."

As the protest was gearing up, the state Department of Developmental Services issued a statement saying: "Due to a perceived threat to the prospective residents of the Desert Phoenix home in Phelan, the Department of Developmental Services has determined that their safety cannot be assured at present."

The statement said the state would not allow the developmentally disabled sex offenders to be placed in the home until their safety can be ensured. A spokesman for the department declined to elaborate, except to say that state and local representatives for the group home would try to reach an agreement with neighbors before opening the home.

Under state law, local counties and cities are barred from requiring a special permit or variance for a group home serving six or fewer people.

The home would be operated by Phoenix Programs, which has been contracted by the Inland Regional Center, a state-funded nonprofit organization that works to rehabilitate developmentally disabled children and adults.

State officials say the home, operating under a program called the Sexual Offenders Active Reorientation System, is the first of its kind in the state.

Michael Barrington, president and chief executive of Phoenix Programs Inc., disputed the county's description of the facility, saying it is an assisted-living home, not a criminal detention facility.

"I can't believe they are so ignorant," he said of the supervisors.

Barrington declined to disclose details about the residents who would live in the facility. He said the security would be tight at the home, with alarms on the windows and doors and an electric gate and fence surrounding the property. In addition, each resident would be under watch 24 hours a day.

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