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Treatment facility under microscope

Neighbors, school officials wary of substance-abuse facility next to Madras Elementary
News Editor
   Feb. 13, 2002 -- A residential substance-abuse treatment facility that soon will open next to Madras Elementary School has raised a red flag with neighbors and local school officials questioning the appropriateness of its location.
   BestCare Treatment Services, a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, is renovating a home located at 236 S.E. D St. that will operate as a short-term residential treatment program for recovering Hispanic drug- and alcohol-abuse clients.
   The single-story home is located kitty-corner from Madras Elementary. Surrounding neighbors and school parents want to know why they weren't notified of the program's arrival before the city of Madras' planning department approved its application and major renovations on the house began.
   Madras Elementary Principal Steve Johnson called the location a "gamble" that wasn't worth taking.
   "I think there's too many variables and uncertainties about the program and the clientele they serve," Johnson said. "It could have some impact on the school and students."
   Johnson said school officials noticed work being done to the home but didn't know it would house substance-abuse treatment clients until last week when concerned parents began calling the school.
   Jana Roth, who resides directly across 10th Street from the home, said every neighbor and parent she's talked to thinks the prospect of the facility's next to a school is "crazy."
   "How can you think it's ethical to put a drug rehab center right next to children in what's supposed to be a drug-free zone," Roth said. "We teach our kids not to use drugs and alcohol and then we look across the street and there's a drug-treatment center. This just makes me sad because this could all be avoided."
   The issue has been taken up with the Madras City Council. The topic was scheduled for the council's regular Tuesday evening meeting, but a report on the discussion was unavailable at press time due to The Pioneer's noon deadline.
   However, the outcry prompted a quick response from BestCare officials last week. Randy Johnson, BestCare Director of Residential Service, said the program would be a "good neighbor."
   "We want to help the community at large," he said. "We will not be loud. We will not have people coming and going. There won't be music. There won't be people hanging on the corner. We'll be very low profile within the neighborhood."
   Randy Johnson emphasized that all clients seeking the services BestCare provides come on a voluntary basis. Many are referred to the program by counselors.
   The clients are not actively using substances when they arrive, he said. They recover in a classroom setting with exposure to 12-step programs and are not permitted to leave the home unless they are supervised.
   "We're not taking people off the street or in for detox," he said. "We're talking about highly motivated individuals seeking to recover. They're pretty much working-class average people from, for the most part, Central Oregon."
   The home will open with six beds initially but eventually expand to house 15. It will be staffed by eight BestCare employees and clients will be supervised 24 hours a day.
   BestCare operates a similar facility in Redmond, Randy Johnson said, and prospective clients often sit on a waiting list for four months to gain entry to the program. He said the program has no problem with its neighbors there.
   Yet Jefferson County School District Superintendent Phil Riley expressed concerns. He stopped short of condemning BestCare's arrival, however.
   "I think if I was designing a city of planning, normally I wouldn't design an elementary school next to a treatment facility but I couldn't tell you what kind of folks will be there," Riley said.
   Riley noted that the 509-J School District Board had no authority over the program's location and had not taken a stance against it.
   "I understand it's done," he said. "Had this been a discussion on the front end, maybe the results would have been different."
   Steve Johnson said elementary school officials were still gathering information on the program before taking a "stance." He said the school may consider re-examining its safety procedures.
   "I think our school is a secure facility and we're always working on that," Steve Johnson said. "But once we know more about the facility we might see what new types of security steps we might have to take, if any."
   Randy Johnson said many people have unfortunate perceptions of recovering substance abusers. He said the program does screening and will not allow violent criminals or sex offenders.
   "What I want to say is, number one, I hear their concerns and I understand where people are coming from," Randy Johnson said. "There are perceptions of substance abusers that are not good. But the other side of the coin is there's many many people in this country including doctors, lawyers, senators -- our president even admitted he once had a substance problem -- there's a lot of fine people that wrestle with this issue that go on to healthy, productive lives and we want to be a part of that."
   Roth, however, said neighbors are not convinced. She said many are concerned that individuals can gain admittance to the program while their criminal cases are pending when court judges defer them to rehab.
   Of their several complaints, wary neighbors, school officials and parents all have voiced one resounding concern: Why was their no notice of BestCare's arrival?
   Madras Interim Planing Director Chris Bedsaul said BestCare's application, which was approved three weeks ago, did not have to go through the city's planning commission to locate in the R1 single-family residential zone.
   "All they had to do was apply for a building permit because it's designated as an outright permitted use as a residential home facility," Bedsaul said.
   BestCare had originally identified a different location for its residential treatment facility, Randy Johnson said, but zoning prevented them from locating there.
   "We made a pretty good effort to make that deal happen but we got up against a time crunch and this other property became the alternative," he said.
   Roth said the application should have raised a red flag with the city's planning department.
   "Right now I think you could build a nuclear power plant next to the school," she said.