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County task force forms to battle ‘hoarding’

By Staff | Dec 30, 2010

A Lee County task force has formed to help deal with the problems of hoarding
Founded by Adam Leath, chief Animal Control officer for the county’s animal services, the task force has brought together professionals from a number of different fields to understand, and combat, the illness.
Law enforcement, fire, animal services, mental health, code enforcement and law enforcement officials make up the task force, which is scheduled to hold its second meeting next month.
Leath said a 2009 case in which a woman was living with floor to ceiling garbage and two dogs really brought the problem to his attention; not because of how the woman was living, but because she wanted help, and there was no one to provide that assistance.
“She accepted full responsibility for her actions and asked for help …. I started reaching out to other agencies but no one knew what to do or where to go,” Leath said.
Working with Lee County’s Human Services Department, Leath was able to wrangle the separate agencies into a cohesive unit, one that Leath said will save taxpayers’ money in the long run.
The quicker that hoarding problems are dealt with, Leath said, the less of a burden they are to public money.
“No matter how you look at the problem, it will get to the point that conditions are so deplorable the structure will have to be torn down, and who is going to pay for that in the end? The taxpayer,” Leath said.
Animal hoarding has been one of the more visible and highly reported aspects of hoarding recently, as hundreds of animals have been recovered from homes across Lee County.
Leath said hoarding animals is not a new phenomenon, nor is Lee County seeing more hoarders than other places in the state, or the nation.
The problem, according to Lee County Human Services Director Anne Arnall, was that no local agency had any true authority to impede upon conditions inside a home.
“No one has jurisdiction to go in and tell them how they can and cannot live,” Arnall said. “What surprised me was that animal control is the agency with the most authority.”
The task force, Arnall said, is about making sure those separate agencies are working on the same page.
“Depending on the circumstance, there might be an agency to take lead, but everyone is there to support each other the best they can,” she added.
Arnall sited the recent case of Gail Andrews, the Fort Myers woman who was discovered living with the remains of her mother because she didn’t want anyone to see the inside of her home, as an example of multiple agencies not being able to affect the situation.
Without Lee County Sheriff’s Office serving a search warrant, the condition in which she lived might not have been discovered, Arnall said.
“People we’re trying to intervene but no one had jurisdiction,” Arnall added.
The task force meetings are open to the public.
Leath said public participation is absolutely crucial to making the task force a success, as they can provide information about neighbors or family members who might need help, especially when animals or children are involved.
The message, Leath said, is that help is available, even if the task force doesn’t yet have all the answers.
“The need for the public to report these things in imperative,” Leath said. “It doesn’t mean we’re waiting with handcuffs, it means we’re waiting with help.”
The Lee County hoarding task force is set to meet Jan. 26, 10 a.m., at the Human Services building in Fort Myers.