Two St. Bernard Parish residents who say they were unfairly prohibited from opening therapeutic group homes for disabled children filed a federal lawsuit last week against the parish and state governments.

Dionna Richardson, owner of the home care company AngeliCare LLC, and Cathy Moore, owner of C. Moore Therapeutic Group Home LLC, said the parish and the state violated the federal Fair Housing Act when they refused to allow the homes to open because the children who would live there have disabilities.

St. Bernard Parish improperly changed its zoning code to exclude group homes after the owners had already applied for licenses, the lawsuit alleges.

Richardson and Moore said parish officials then "deliberately" refused "to grant reasonable modifications to that code" that would allow the homes to open.

The state then denied the owners licenses to operate the group homes because the law requires such homes to be in compliance with local zoning laws.

Neither parish nor state officials responded to requests for comment.

Parish Council members, however, contested the discrimination claim in meetings last year, saying that the zoning laws are not discriminatory and that the owners could have chosen to open group homes in other areas of the parish.

Residents who attended the council meetings also voiced objections to the homes, according to the complaint.

"Comments from the public included: 'Can’t they put it somewhere else?'; 'We’re taxpayers, this is our neighborhood'; and 'This group home has nothing in common with any single-family residential house in this neighborhood,' " the lawsuit says.

The suit seeks unspecified financial damages as well as an injunction ordering the parish and the state to immediately allow the group homes to open and begin accepting residents. 

The dispute began in 2015, when Richardson and Moore first sought to convert their houses in Violet and Chalmette into group homes for children with mental health disabilities, including severe attention deficit and bipolar disorders.

Each home would have housed five children under the supervision of a psychiatrist or psychologist. The homes would have provided an array of services in a "homelike" 24-hour living environment.

The venture was in part motivated by a need the two business owners saw, they said in a news release. As of mid-2017, they noted, there are no licensed therapeutic group homes for children with disabilities in St. Bernard Parish.

The lack of such spaces, they said, forces children with disabilities who need home services to leave their families and communities.

“For over a year now, we’ve just wanted to help children with disabilities. We’ve invested everything we have in doing this,” Richardson said.

The homes never opened, however, because Richardson and Moore got "cease and desist" orders from the parish.

Parish officials claimed at the time that the homes weren't appropriate under the area's single-family residential zoning because there would be members of multiple families living under one roof.

The plaintiffs' lawyers claim that was discriminatory, however, because they say the parish allows "any number of children to live together, with four or more adults," in a single-family residential area, as long as the children do not have disabilities and require caretakers.

"These (proposed) homes are not commercial facilities. They are homes for children with disabilities,” said Eve Hill, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "That’s discrimination.”

The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against a buyer or renter because of a handicap. The law says discrimination includes “a refusal to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such a person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

During an appeals process, after the Parish Council had denied the request, representatives from several local government entities said Richardson and Moore should have put the homes in properties zoned to allow multiple families, such as duplexes or apartment buildings.

Earl Dauterive, a member of the St. Bernard Parish Planning Commission, testified in January that group homes do not fit in single-family zones because the homes are for "individuals who are not related.”

"As far as reasonable accommodations go, that is their reasonable accommodation," he said about the suggestion they seek a spot with different zoning.

The plaintiffs' lawyers disagree.

"Because group homes are required by state regulation to be homelike, it is not appropriate to place them in commercial or high-density neighborhoods," they said in their release.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.