Parents of disabled residents living in JoCo group homes speak out against perceived discrimination

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - Parents of developmentally disabled residents living in some Johnson County group homes are speaking out about what they perceive as discrimination against their children.

The controversy revolves around facilities operated by the Life Centers of Kansas , which has 10 group homes in Leawood, Overland Park, Olathe and Lenexa.

Right now, the debate focuses on one particular property in southern Overland Park. Fire safety regulators and codes inspectors determined the home is required to have a sprinkler system installed.

Life Centers has countered that the expensive requirement violates the Fair Housing Act.

On Thursday, company owners and their attorney met with Overland Park officials in a closed-door meeting to argue for a “reasonable accommodations” for the residents to avoid the expensive upgrade to the existing home.

City spokesman Sean Reilly told 41 Action News there is now a 30-day window to review the information and make a decision about the sprinkler system requirement.

“The city wants to accommodate everyone, but we really have to worry about safety and that’s a fine line. It’s a really delicate line to work with,” Reilly said.

In the meantime, a group of parents gathered outside the meeting at City Hall to protest.

They know the city’s decision will likely set a precedent and affect other group homes operated by Life Centers. Fire marshals in surrounding cities like Leawood have already told 41 Action News they are closely following the situation.

“We are the voices for our children and we want our children to be safe,” Annie Roewe said, whose stepson Devin lives in one of the group homes.

Roewe and other parents said they feel the homes are extremely safe. Their kids participate in monthly fire drills to make sure they know how to quickly escape in case of emergency.

Sarah Munday’s 38-year-old son Christopher Zerr has a severe form of autism.

“He’s non-verbal and he can’t speak. That’s why I’m speaking for him,” she said.

Munday thinks the sprinkler system requirement is discrimination if it’s not also required of other homes in the neighborhood.

There’s also a lingering suspicion from parents that the cities are getting complaints from wealthy homeowners concerned about increased traffic and decreasing property values.

“The majority of neighbors are supportive and friendly, but there is a very strong, vocal group that has fear,” Munday said.

Reilly told 41 Action News he wasn’t aware of any complaints from neighbors. Instead, he said the issue surfaced earlier this year when a fire crew responded to an emergency and discovered the group home in the 14100 block of Garnett Street.

The group home hadn’t been previously inspected and the Overland Park fire marshal determined the property needed to have the sprinkler system to comply with the latest set of codes adopted by the City.

Parents told 41 Action News the neighborhood group home setting has been an extremely positive experience for their kids. They worry the conclusion of the legal battle could be disruptive to their lives and leave them without a place to live.

“We all love our kids and want to make sure they’re taken care of,” Roewe said.

As 41 Action News reported last week, Life Centers is also at odds with the Kansas state agency that licenses group home operators. There is a July 1 deadline to get in compliance with all fire and life safety codes.

Stay with KSHB.com for developments to this ongoing story.

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@kshb.com. You can also follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook .

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