Police jury grants license to group home despite pushback

Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2023

VIDALIA, La. — The owner of the 242 Freeman Road property in Vidalia couldn’t hide her compassion while telling the police jury of her plan to open a group home for abused girls at the location.

The police jury members unanimously granted an occupational license to Alicia Dennis, a psychiatric nurse who proposes to open the Blossom Therapeutic Group Home, despite residents of the neighborhood speaking out in disapproval during a public hearing Monday.

While telling them of her plans, Dennis stopped abruptly at one point to wipe away tears.

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“These are not bad kids,” she told the police jury and meeting attendees. “They have been abused.”

A packed board room heard Dennis’s proposal for a home for up to 10 girls between 12 and 17 years old who would be referred to the group home via the Department of Children and Family Services, she said.

“I’ve been a certified psychiatric nurse for over five years and throughout my career, I have worked with the span of age six to the elderly. I developed a passion for kids and those who’ve suffered from abuse. I’ve also worked with a couple of group homes in Louisiana and that led me to want to open my own to serve kids. Most (of these kids) have been taken away from their homes for instances of abuse beyond what my mind can comprehend — physical abuse, sexual abuse. They’ve been taken from their homes. It has always been a passion of mine to provide a home so these kids can flourish and prosper as adults so that the cycle doesn’t continue.”

Residents argued that a family residential neighborhood is not the place for such a home, where other children and elderly people live.

“Freeman Road is a narrow, one-lane road made of gravel,” said Marilyn Alexander Turner, a Freeman Road resident. “The house that she is proposing for the group home is just that — a house. I’m just guessing you’d have anywhere from three to four vehicles at that house. You’d need to look at the plumbing also. We constantly get floods in that area all the time. You need to look at the zoning permit. If it’s a business, she said nothing about food and safety permits. She said nothing about insurance.”

Turner held up a card with a mugshot printed on it, sharing that it was a sex offender notice sent to residents of the area.

“We just got this in the mail Friday or Saturday,” she said. “And you want to put 17-year-old girls here. … Are you going to have the qualified staff to provide 24-hour service to watch these young ladies?”

Brandy Spears, who works as a victims’ advocate for Concordia Parish Sheriff’s Office, argued that a normal home in a residential neighborhood is exactly what children who are victims of abuse need. She asked questions of Dennis that included whether she could provide adequate security and psychiatric help for the children in her care.

Dennis responded by saying all of those are things that the state requires before she is even allowed to open the home. In response to the traffic concern, Dennis said the children would be driven around in a 10-passenger van, so they would only require one vehicle.

Most of the children have bounced from one foster home to another and wind up going to hospitals and are released back to another foster home, Dennis said. A group home allows them to get the help they need in a structured home staffed with counselors and nurses.

“The difference between a group home and any other home with multiple children is that a group home has staff monitoring the children 24 hours, seven days a week,” Dennis said.

Sergeant Thomas Gaude and Fred Middleton of the sheriff’s said they get frequent calls about the existing group home in Vidalia concerning children who have walked off the premises.

“They’re not going out and holding up the local gas station or anything. They’re just trying to get away,” Middleton said, suggesting some type of alarm system that would alert staff to a child leaving.

“When we get the call the horse is already out of the barn, so to speak. … It doesn’t need to be a place where children are warehoused for a profit. It needs to be a place where they leave there a better citizen than they came.”

Police Jury President Collin Edwards said as long as there isn’t any issue with the group home’s state licensing, then the police jury has to grant the occupational license.

“If we don’t, she can sue the board and the parish,” he said.