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Grundy County battling hoarding disorders

Published: Monday, March 10, 2014 8:53 p.m. CDT

MORRIS – Shows about hoarding have become some of the most popular on television, but for as many as 1,000 Grundy County residents, the compulsive condition is a dangerous reality.

With that in mind, Melissa Wasko, the “60-plus” therapist for the Grundy County Health Department, is assembling a Grundy County Hoarding Task Force, bringing together municipalities, first responders and mental health professionals to better understand and address the hoarding issue locally.

Currently, there are few local resources for hoarders or those – such as family members, neighbors and first responders – who interact with them.

“More and more people were bringing cases to our attention,” Wasko said. “So I thought, we really need to do something about this.”

Earlier this year, the health department’s division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse received a grant from the Community Foundation of Grundy County to tackle the issue. It was then that the idea for a hoarding task force was hatched.

Wasko said she is gathering the stakeholders to identify the issue, inventory what services are available, find new resources and develop solutions for the problem. She hopes to have the task force assembled by the end of the year.

“Right now, if first responders are at a home and it’s hoarding related, they aren’t any resources in Grundy County for them,” said Julie Buck, executive director of the Community Foundation and member of the Behavioral Health Alliance.

Wasko said there are no concrete hoarding statistics for Grundy County, but based on national estimates, there could be 500 to 1,000 hoarders living within the county.

Part of the task force’s mission will be to gather more definite statistics about hoarding in Grundy County so it will have a better schema of the problem.

Tracey Steffes, chief of the Morris Fire Protection and Ambulance District, said his department handles hoarding cases “sporadically,” but added he has seen an increase in the number of hoarding cases over the last few years, sometimes handling as many as three or four in a week.

“I think it’s new in that it’s becoming more public than it used to be,” Steffes said. “Hoarding is a very personal thing, but now it has come to light – obviously with some of these TV shows – and I think people are more open about it.”

One goal of the task force will be to educate people on where to draw the line between hoarding and “a lot of clutter,” Wasko said.

Hoarded homes pose health risks for the hoarder and nearby neighbors, she said, because the clutter can attract rodents and bugs. In some cases, Wasko said bathrooms and kitchens cannot be accessed, which leads to further sanitary and health issues.

Steffes said hoarding also makes it difficult for a person to properly evacuate a home in the time of an emergency.

“There’s also a distress level for the person,” Wasko said. “Whether that means they feel shame, guilt, embarrassment or isolation about the way they’re living.”

Wasko attended last week’s Morris City Council meeting to ask for support and involvement from city leaders. She said she will be making the rounds at every municipal meeting in the county to recruit help.

A major question she wants answered is who has the legal authority, if any, to intervene in a hoarding situation and how far can they go.

“We just want to have more concrete and specific guidelines for all of those involved,” Wasko said.

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