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Mentally ill return to Ashland YMCA after ban repealed

ASHLAND ' Mentally ill residents of the Hazel Center, including several criminals, will resume using the Ashland Family YMCA fitness center immediately, officials said Friday.

Members of the YMCA board of directors voted unanimously to revoke a three-week-old ban on residents from the lock-down center on Maple Street. After conversations with state, county and center officials, board members resolved concerns about public safety, said spokesman Michael Donovan.

We have sufficient, reasonable assurances that there would be no risk to our members, including the most vulnerable: seniors and children, said Donovan, a board member for the 6,000-member agency.

But advocates for the clients said the agreement reached earlier this week recognized that the YMCA had no cause to exclude Hazel Center residents from using their paid fitness memberships.

Basically (YMCA officials) admit they don't ask anyone else for criminal background checks, said Kathy Wilde, litigation director for the Oregon Advocacy Center, a watchdog group for the mentally ill. These people were being discriminated against because of their mental illness.

— Opened in June, Hazel Center is home to a dozen severely mentally ill people, including six civilly committed clients and six clients found guilty of felonies except for insanity. Their crimes range from arson and kidnapping to sexual abuse and attempted murder. The ban affected about 10 clients allowed to visit the YMCA.

YMCA officials hinged the clients' return on two conditions: that mental health professionals screen clients closely to ensure they pose no danger; and that one Hazel Center staff member accompany every two residents allowed to visit the YMCA. Previously, one staffer supervised every three clients, officials said. Also, no sex offenders will be allowed to attend, Donovan said.

Center residents already were subject to evaluation and supervision and sex offenders already were prohibited from using the YMCA, Wilde said.

Neither YMCA board members nor staff knew that, Donovan said. He said Jackson County officials, who run the Hazel Center, didn't inform them that they'd be bringing a group of mentally ill people, including criminals, to the YMCA.

They were under no obligation to do so, but from a community standpoint, it would have been nice to make us aware of it, he said.

Hank Collins, county health director, said the clients were no different from any other YMCA members whose backgrounds are unknown.

To treat those people differently is just wrong, he said. I'm ashamed that my community would treat them that way.

All YMCA members are screened for Oregon sex offense convictions, Donovan said. General criminal background checks are not performed, he added.

The issue arose Sept. 2, when a YMCA member recognized the clients and informed staff that they had been convicted of felonies. Donovan said staff members would investigate any report of potential danger.

Any perception that the Y is discriminating or violating civil liberties is not true, Donovan said. The Y has a 105-year history in the community of serving people with disabilities.

It took some time for YMCA officials to understand the nature of the clients and the supervision they're under. The clients who've committed felonies are on conditional release approved by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board.

Now that the issue is resolved, the Hazel Center residents can resume their fitness regime.

The folks are going to swim at the YMCA tomorrow, Collins said.