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Keeping "family' together

Residents of an adult group home for the retarded have become close over the years. Their parents fear the home will be split up.

When Sherryl Mantell talks about the treatment her son receives in a group home for mentally retarded adults, she breaks into tears.

Not because she dislikes the Suncoast Residential Training Center, but because she loves it.

She's afraid it will shut down, and her 33-year-old autistic son will have to go someplace where he will be less happy and less safe.

"I am absolutely panic-stricken," Mantell said recently.

During the past year, officials with the Department of Children and Families have discussed the possibility of trading the state-owned land surrounding the center to nearby Jabil Circuit Inc.

The deal appears likely to fall through, but the negotiations have revealed something unsettling to parents of those who live at the center. Eventually, the state probably will do away with the 12-person home as it exists now and replace it with smaller group homes nestled into neighborhoods.

Parents of the center's residents say it has taken so long to find a suitable place for their children that they don't want to change. Over the years, these 12 have become a family, they say. They don't want the family split apart.

"This is such a good program and it has been for so long," said Cheryl Caudil, whose son Guy Adkins lives at the center.

It is an ironic situation because in the past, governments were criticized for housing mentally retarded and mentally ill people in large institutions removed from society. Now governments across the country are trying a more humane approach: working to keep these people out of institutions, in smaller group homes located in neighborhoods where they have a connection to the rest of society.

But at the moment, these parents aren't worried about larger philosophical issues. They're worried about their sons and daughters. In other settings, they say, their children were overlooked, arrested or even beaten. At the Suncoast center, they say, their children are happy, healthy and learning.

"On the whole, they're all so happy to be there and they're safe," Mantell said. "I say to (state officials) "You have something that works. Why is it so hard to keep it?' "

Jabil approached state officials last year and proposed acquiring the roughly 20-acre parcel in the 1200 block of 102nd Avenue N that is home to the Suncoast group home. The land also contains two other facilities: a separate 24-person group home for profoundly mentally retarded people and the state Department of Children and Families' administrative offices for developmental services.

The plan makes sense, said Sam Kinsey, the department's deputy district administrator in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

All the buildings need repairs. Under the proposed land swap, Jabil would have found additional property, built new buildings and paid the state any additional money to make it an even swap.

"We could end up with new and more modern facilities," Kinsey said.

People at the second group home, called the St. Petersburg Cluster, have been enthusiastic, said Kym Mason, the executive director. If her center could get a new building, the residents would enjoy a new air conditioning system that would help those with respiratory problems; wider doors, hallways and closets for those in wheelchairs; and a patio to enjoy the sun.

Some parents of Suncoast center residents expressed doubts about making the move, partly because Jabil had located a site on busy Belcher Road in the Largo area, but most made peace with it.

Recently, however, they learned that the state did not want to rebuild the Suncoast group home after all. That's because the state is no longer in the business of building and owning group homes such as Suncoast, said Wanda Blanton, acting program administrator for Developmental Services in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

State officials still would pay the cost of housing and training Suncoast group home residents, along with help from the residents' Social Security income, but the residents would probably go to smaller homes.

Some parents were upset with the news and spoke to officials of Jabil, which now appears to be stopping the negotiations that began nearly a year ago.

"I would say the chances of it happening are remote at best," said Jabil spokeswoman Beth Walters. Alluding to the possibility of residents being displaced, she said, "It's just not the kind of company we are."

Blanton said recently she was still hopeful the negotiations would succeed and that "it will be a shame if it does fall through." Even if it does, "I don't think that would essentially stop us from trying to look for something better," because the buildings do need to be replaced.

Kerry Mauk smiled as he came to his mother one day this month and said, "Montanari all gone."

He shook his head like a blues singer repeating a favorite line, and his smile got even bigger. "Montanari all gone."

Mauk, 33, exults when he realizes he won't have to return to the Montanari Residential Treatment Center, a home for mentally retarded people in Hialeah that closed after allegations that its workers beat and neglected residents. Mauk lived there for six years, but finally won the right to come to the Suncoast center, which is closer to his mother.

That home closed 12 years ago.

But every time his mother, Mantell, comes to see him, she hears the same happy refrain: Montanari all gone.

When her son had to return to Montanari after visits home, he used to cry and cry, said Mantell, who has another son who works in the St. Petersburg Times printing plant. "When I leave him here, he never says anything except "Bye mom. Go to work.' "

Parents say Suncoast, which is operated by Goodwill Industries under a contract with the state, helps its residents with a program of behavior specialists who carefully train people to handle simple tasks such as eating, dressing, bathing and brushing teeth.

Nancy Luke, the center's supervisor, said the residents "have seen relationships grow and develop over the years. They've seen people share the death of a parent for example or the leaving of a staff member." Some are close to their families, and some have no one, but they all share a bond, she said.

One recent Friday afternoon, Todd Keister was grilling hamburgers outside under the close eye of staff. He has two season tickets to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and staff often volunteer to take him and watch the games with him.

But "every once in a while he does something and returns to the 8-year-old" who is inside him, said his mother, Pat. She's worried that a smaller home with less staff might not be able to supervise him closely at those times.

As to the smaller group homes, "I don't think they're in a position to deal with someone like my son who has a behavior problem," said Lil Cofrancesco, whose son Anthony lives at Suncoast.

Like other parents, Cheryl Caudil has seen her son in places where she felt the care was less than adequate. She doesn't want to go back to that.

"It just rips your heart right out from your body," she said.

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