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Rep. confident facility's future is secure
State Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, is confident the agreement he helped broker last week to keep Harpers Joy open is permanent.

But the lawyer in him can't say with absolute certainty that all is well.

The state has decided not to close the assisted living facility for 22 mentally disabled residents, but that doesn't mean it's safe.

The federal government also could move to shut it down.

"I don't expect that to happen," Atwood said. "No one has said that. But you never know when you're in the middle of a consent decree."

Atwood said the state and federal governments have entered into a consent decree on how to manage mental health facilities, but Harpers Joy should have never been targeted by the state.

When the state announced Harpers Joy would close at the end of the year, family members were told the facility was too much like an institution.

The state, as part of the agreement with the federal government, wanted residents mainstreamed into society by living in facilities where no more than 49 percent of the residents have mental disabilities.

The initial decision to close Harpers Joy drew quick criticism from family members opposed to the state telling them their relatives would have to move from the old Brunswick hospital at 519 Norwich St. by the end of the year.

They said their family members were happy living in the comfortable, three-room apartments with the support of Gateway Behavioral Services staff, which helps with medications, housekeeping, cooking and transportation.

Family members said their loved ones would not receive the close attention if forced to move, and friendships among residents would be jeopardized.

Staff at the facility said residents are allowed to make many decisions regarding their day-to-day lives, including how they spend their own money, what meals they eat and what they do in their free time.

Neighbors living nearby also argued the residents were already mainstreamed and were an important part of their community.

Nearly 2,400 people signed a petition to keep Harpers Joy open.

Community support, he said, played an important role in convincing state officials to reverse their decision.

Atwood said there is no doubt Harpers Joy is exactly what the federal government is trying to accomplish with assisted living facilities for mentally disabled.

"The intent is to give residents a degree of independence," he said. "I know it is what the federal government wants."

But if the federal government ever threatens to close Harpers Joy, Atwood said supporters would also have another powerful ally this time.

"I feel confident we would have the support of the state of Georgia," he said. "We now have the behavioral folks on the state level supporting us."

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