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Group-home debate rages on Internet

An online message board has become a battleground over the abundance of social service agencies in Framingham, and created a new outlet for concerns about what some residents perceive to be one of the biggest threats to the town.

On issues ranging from federal laws governing the rights of the disabled to the appropriateness of group homes, discussions have raged on the Internet message board Frambors, at Frambors has gained popularity among residents, community activists, and town officials, many of whom have brought to the site their years-long opposition to social service agencies, especially the placement of group homes in residential neighborhoods.

"I think this is healthy," said Selectwoman Ginger Esty, who noted that town officials regularly monitor the website.

The debate shifts to a live venue tonight at 7 at Nevins Hall in the Memorial Building downtown, where a public forum will cover issues surrounding social service agencies and their impact on Framingham neighborhoods.

Tom O'Neil, a Precinct 8 Town Meeting member who gathered 80 signatures from residents to initiate tonight's forum, has posted on Frambors for three or four years. At 81, he says he does better than most of his friends, who have found the Internet too complicated to maneuver. And though Frambors is an important outlet, it's not the most appropriate one for this debate, he said.

"I think the public forum, with documented evidence and suggestions as to how to solve it," is the best way, he said. "I think anything short of that is just babble."

Although Frambors started carrying the social services debate about four years ago, arguments did not become very heated until recently. Last spring, Steven W. Orr, the site's creator and former moderator, started a report called "SSA Watch" to provide statistics on the number of incidents related to social service agencies that required police intervention.

"It's so people can see what's happening," said Orr, who is also a former member of the town's PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, citizens committee. "If you don't know how social service agencies are financially impacting our town, then there's no reason you can be upset with the current situation."

The debate on Frambors, which has 1,200 subscribers, became so robust that William J. Taylor, chief executive officer of the social service agency Advocates Inc., felt compelled to participate after an invitation from Orr.

Taylor started to post more frequently after Advocates bought a group home in August on William J. Heights, a street in a neighborhood off Singletary Lane. The home, one of five of its kind, is meant for clients with Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder marked by cognitive disabilities, low muscle tone, and chronic hunger that can lead to life-threatening obesity.

"The problem that I see with Frambors is the Internet divide," Taylor said. "Those of us in the middle class have pretty free and easy access to the Internet, whereas a lot of the folks who are served by social services don't."

There are a number of online lists for Framingham residents to subscribe to, but some are restricted to Town Meeting members. Most posters join the Frambors list, restricted to content about local politics, or the Framcom list, restricted to community fare, such as where to find the best plumber or restaurant.

Frambors moderator Linda Dunbrack said people have admitted to being scared to post opinions on the site that don't reflect that of the majority.

"What you end up seeing is the most polarized position on the issue," she said.

Dawn Harkness, an attorney and former member of the PILOT committee, has defended social service agencies on the site.

In an e-mail, she described Frambors as mostly a propaganda machine for Orr and those who share his views. Harkness said she has been personally attacked on Frambors many times for her opinions, but private e-mail she gets indicates others do agree with her.

"I sometimes wish they would post publicly, but under the current climate, I absolutely understand why they choose not to," Harkness wrote.

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