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Cheverly Woman's Death Highlights Dangers Of Hoarding

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An example of hoarding behavior observed by health officials in Montgomery County.
Montgomery County Government
An example of hoarding behavior observed by health officials in Montgomery County.

A fatal fire this past weekend that took the life of woman is drawing more attention to the behavior commonly known as hoarding.

The woman who perished in the Sunday morning blaze on 59th place in Cheverly, Md., died alone in a home so cluttered with accumulated items that firefighters found it difficult to enter.

Prince George's Fire Chief Mark Bashoor outlines what first responders found when they finally got in.

"There were piles of things inside the home 5 and 6 feet high," Bashoor says. "Of course, all those piles create havoc for firefighters trying to get into a house, and then create further havoc as firefighters try to search the home for trapped occupants."

Bashoor says when fire breaks out in a home where extreme hoarding is an issue, residents aren't the only ones in danger.

"We end up toppling over some of those piles which ultimately traps some of our firefighters," Bashoor says. "It's just really an ugly situation."

Mental health professionals define hoarding as "the acquisition of and failure to discard a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value."

The behavior has gained more attention recently through a handful of cable reality programs that examine the psychology behind the compulsive behavior, and also from the growth of locally-based task force agencies created to address the problem, such as the Montgomery County Task Force on Hoarding Behavior.

"We want to help these people before the dangers occur," says Bonnie Klem, the task force's supervisor of adult protective services. "We want to help them before the fires occur, before they fall because they are falling over their own things, or a stack of boxes fall on them."

According to one specialist, the ability to help those individuals is directly proportional to the mental health care available.

Sybil Greenheart, a task force member who specializes in mental health, says a recent change in diagnostic designation for the behavior will make that help available for those who need it.

"Hoarding was not a reimbursable psychiatric diagnosis," Greenheart says. "We have been advised that hoarding is now an official diagnosis, so people can be treated and therapists can be reimbursed."

Recent figures suggest there are thousands of potential hoarders in Montgomery County.

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