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The leafy suburbs of Henrico County played an important role in helping Virginia Democrats take control of the state legislature in Tuesday’s election. But Republicans hold sway over the growing county’s government even as its population becomes more diverse and left-leaning.
The same demographic shifts that helped elevate more Democrats to the General Assembly and Congress in recent years gave Henrico Democrats hope that they could wrest control of the Board of Supervisors that Republicans have held for decades.
But Democrats’ enthusiasm to compete for seats in formerly strong Republican districts has waned, with the party not prioritizing support for a candidate in what was identified two years ago as a key swing district that they held for several months. The party ran two candidates in the county’s three Republican-held west end districts Tuesday and were met with defeat.
One of those candidates, Marques Jones, the former chairman of the county’s Democratic committee, said he knew he would be a long shot against a six-term Republican incumbent in Tuckahoe, but felt the other two seats were ripe for Democrats to flip.
In the Brookland District, where a Democratic candidate for the Board of Supervisors won two years ago and a growing African American, Latino and Asian population now makes up about one-third of the residents there, the incumbent Republican was elected to a full four-year term on the board after winning the seat in a special election last year.
Several Democratic leaders and a political analyst say the seat now seems further out of reach as Dan Schmitt has become a formidable opponent.
“I don’t think Brookland was a priority necessarily,” said Lizzie Drucker-Basch, chair of the Henrico Democratic committee, in an interview Wednesday. “We’re in a difficult spot. The county is run exceedingly well and nobody denies that; so when you have something that is working, it’s hard to take that and flip it on its head.”
Democrats made significant strides in 2011 to win the Varina District seat on the Board of Supervisors and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office after African Americans became the largest racial group in the east end district. Democratic activists and leaders since then have said demographic and electoral shifts in the county’s near west end gave them hope that they could capture a third seat for control of the board.
But it hasn’t exactly panned out that way.
The party managed to hold a majority for seven months when a Democrat won in a special election following the death of longtime Supervisor Dick Glover in 2017. Courtney Lynch won against Republican candidate Bob Witte in a special election that November. She quit the following June after butting heads with other board members who said she did not adequately consult school division counterparts and county budget officials before proposing a $4 million teacher pay increase.
Schmitt won again in Tuesday’s general election by 18 percentage points, or 4,000 votes, against Democratic candidate Steven Burkarth, according to the Virginia Department of Elections. It was a much larger victory for Schmitt, who won last year by 8 percentage points, or 2,000 votes, in a race that saw many voters split their ballot by electing Democrats Rep. Abigail Spanberger and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine to Congress.
“The reality is Brookland is increasingly becoming more Democratic in its vote every year, expect for that local seat,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Tyrone Nelson, who won the Varina District seat in 2011 by defeating James Donati, a Republican incumbent who had represented the district since 1992.
“Dan’s ultimately a good guy,” Nelson said. “I think he’s safe in the seat as long as he continues to represent the district and be the type of supervisor he’s been this last year.”
While Schmitt has solidified his grasp on the seat, political observers and party activists two years ago said Brookland could usher in a new phase in county politics, with Democrats ascending to a majority on the Board of Supervisors.
But Bob Holsworth, a veteran political analyst and former Virginia Commonwealth University dean, said Schmitt now appears “unbeatable” for reasons similar to what Nelson and Drucker-Basch described.
“By and large Henrico’s government is seen as quite effective,” said Holsworth, adding that local officials are often voted out when there’s public frustration with a locality’s administration and its political leaders. “The county manager [John Vithoulkas] is highly respected across political lines. So at least right now, there’s not the same burning issue that drives people to make changes that you would normally see.”
Ahead of last week’s election, the incumbents campaigned on the county’s relatively low tax rate and their decisions to build and improve libraries, recreational facilities and public amenities while working to replace two aging high schools and expand an overcrowded elementary school.
Drucker-Basch said issues that drove Henrico voters to elect Democrats in recent years, such as gun control or abortion access, have not resonated as much in local races, making it difficult to persuade people to vote out incumbents.
Schmitt, who spoke with Democratic leaders about potentially running under their party’s banner in the 2018 special election, said party politics often has little to do with the decisions they regularly make on zoning cases, road projects and building projects. (He said he ultimately chose to run as a Republican because the party reflects his “core values” regarding fiscal conservatism.)
“I guess it boils down to this — I always believed folks in Brookland, it didn’t matter to them,” he said about running as a Republican. “I certainly had conversations with people in both parties about the direction of where Brookland was heading. But I think the 2018 special election was about getting back to stability.”
So does it matter which party has a majority?
It all depends on who is elected, said Pat O’Bannon, a Republican who has represented the Tuckahoe District since 1996.
O’Bannon said she’d give more consideration to a leader’s character than party affiliation.
“It depends on who they are and what their philosophy is about the direction Henrico should go,” she said. “This board is in agreement that we are headed in the right direction.”
With Schmitt emerging as a moderate leader, Nelson said he believes the county’s politics have become more balanced politically.
“It’s middle of the road,” he said. “At the end of the day, if there’s a 2-2 split, I think Dan is the guy who will make a decision that’s best for everybody.”
But some Democrats still think they would have a better chance at advancing such issues as socioeconomic equity, teacher pay and the expansion of public transportation services with more liberal leaders.
“We just want to make the quality of life in Henrico better,” Drucker-Basch said. “If Republicans are willing to listen and adopt some of those policies ... that’s all the better for them and the county. I guess that’s my hope.”
Jones, the Democratic candidate who lost in Tuckahoe on Tuesday, said he thinks the party could still run competitive candidates in the other two west end districts when elections are held again.
“I think they’re still in play,” he said. “We just need to recruit great candidates and motivate people.”
Deondra Taylor said she’d love to serve on a jury.
That’s what she told a Richmond Circuit Court judge Nov. 1 after failing to show up for jury duty in September. Taylor was one of 11 no-shows summoned to the John Marshall Courthouse that day to “show cause,” or explain why they didn’t fulfill their civic duty. Courthouse officials estimate a quarter of the jurors called on a given day don’t report.
Taylor filled out and returned an initial questionnaire about jury service, she said, but never received any other paperwork showing when she was to serve.
“I heard you get paid for it,” she said after Chief Richmond Circuit Judge Joi Jeter Taylor let her off with a warning and submitted her name for the jury panels to be drawn in December. Her hearing was slated for 11 a.m. that Friday but was called well after noon. “It’s like I’ve been on jury duty all day. Been waiting here just to get put in again.”
In 2016, just 60 show-cause orders were issued in Richmond’s Circuit Court for jurors who didn’t report for duty, according to data compiled by the clerk’s office. The following year, it nearly tripled to 173 orders. This year, the court has issued 290, a pace that by the end of the year would double the amount from 2017. The number of show-cause orders from 2018 wasn’t provided.
Chesterfield County appears to be the only other large jurisdiction in the region that has dealt with similar problems. More than 370 Chesterfield residents failed to report for service during a 13-month period from 2017 to early 2018, according to a story that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in February 2018.
The issue, in Richmond, wasn’t so severe then, according to Maj. Roger Moss, who oversees court services for the Richmond Sheriff’s Office. Jury service is run by the sheriff in Richmond, rather than as a function of the clerk, like in other localities.
In 2017, 451 prospective Richmond jurors failed to appear, which was considered average. But last year, the sheriff’s office said that number swelled to 1,090, which averages to more than 90 missing jurors per month. The jury office increased the number of jurors called by 15% as the number of absences continued to rise.
On Nov. 1, four other would-be jurors told the judge they had forgotten, and were also added back to the pool of potential jurors next month. Six others also failed to appear on Nov. 1 and were found in contempt of court and fined $100. By law, the fine could range from $50 to $200.
Each of the seven circuit court judges handle no-shows differently, but most have resorted to fines because the problem is becoming so great it’s causing ripple effects throughout the criminal justice system.
“I know people don’t like to have a show cause against them, but we have no choice,” said Clerk of Court Edward F. Jewett. “They are really hampering the court’s ability to function.”
Courthouse officials can’t put their finger on exactly why so many jurors — 1,035 so far this year — don’t show. Most believe it’s apathy, which is why the judges are going to such lengths by issuing show-cause orders requiring sheriff’s deputies to summon the missing jurors to appear before them so they can stress the importance of their service.
“The judges are getting really concerned here,” Jewett said. “It is getting worse and worse.”
Chesterfield seems to have stymied the problem. So far this year, the county has had 151 absences. Wendy S. Hughes, clerk in Chesterfield, attributes the decline to reminders sent to email addresses provided by jurors.
Hughes also said there’s been a decrease in the number of trials, with 45 so far this year compared with 74 in 2018. Richmond had 188 jury trials last year.
In Henrico County, it’s rare for jurors to miss a summons, officials there said, and just 18 Hanover County residents failed to report in all of 2018. So far this year, the total stands at 13 absences, according to Frank D. Hargrove Jr., clerk of Hanover’s Circuit Court.
Richmond courthouse officials couldn’t say exactly how many trials have been affected this year by a lack of jurors, but Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin estimated her office has had to continue about five criminal cases.
“It’s not an issue that happens often but when it does, it has a huge impact, not just for that one case,” McEachin said.
A continuance could conflict with the constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, which, in Virginia, typically expires five months after a preliminary hearing.
Defense attorney Mufeed W. Said said juries often decide more serious charges that can’t be negotiated another way, and therefore have higher stakes for the accused, who is typically held in jail while awaiting trial.
“So if you have to continue a case like that, you have a defendant who remains locked up before having his or her day in court,” he said. “Not to mention months and months of preparation down the drain, plus all the wasted resources to have the witnesses for the commonwealth and defense subpoenaed to be there that particular day.”
Said hasn’t had a trial continued because of a lack of jurors, he said, but has noticed that juror panels in Richmond seem to be getting smaller and smaller.
That could create another issue of seating an impartial jury, another constitutional right, according to defense attorney Betty Layne DesPortes, a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a fellow of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers.
“The composition of the jury venire (the jury pool from which the trial jurors is selected) is subject to constitutional challenge based both on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the ‘fair cross section’ requirement implicit in the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial,” DesPortes explained in an email. “A small, limited jury pool may implicate these rights if the process is excluding specific segments of the population. If, for example, the ‘call in’ notification process disproportionately impacts people of a particular race or age because they are more likely to be shift workers and it does not give them ample time to notify their employers to shift their schedules, that may cause a constitutional infirmity in the jury venire composition.”
While an employer can’t fire someone for complying with jury service, it disproportionately impacts lower-income and hourly workers, who tend to be younger, she said. The $30 fee paid for a day’s jury service hardly supplements a day’s pay, “and barely covers parking and transportation costs,” DesPortes said.
Jeter Taylor, the chief Richmond Circuit Court judge, thanked residents who have dutifully served, adding that they should see it as more than a duty.
“Jury service supports fairness in trials and provides impartial perspectives and viewpoints on cases that are presented in court. It is important that citizens are selected from a wide cross-section of our community so that the societal goal of achieving a fair trial by a ‘jury of our peers’ can be met,” she said in an emailed statement. “I also encourage our fellow citizens to view jury service as a means of civic participation and a vital contribution to our court system and not just a ‘duty,’ although from my perspective, it is both a duty and privilege to serve.”
Criminal trials take precedence over civil ones, said Moss, the sheriff’s major. To ensure there are enough jurors for the criminal trials that day, those cases are called first. Then, jurors stricken or excused from service in those trials may be held over for civil trials later that day and jurors originally assigned to civil panels may have to supplement criminal panels if too many are stricken during questioning, Moss said.
This stopgap can cause serious delays, officials said. Judges have increasingly complained about these issues and have asked the jury office to increase the number of daily jurors.
That may not be a solution, Moss said, because often there are no more jurors to call.
The dearth begins even before prospective jurors ever fail to come to court. Each month, the jury office sends questionnaires to 3,800 possible jurors, who are part of an annual master list of 48,000 city residents provided by the city’s property tax department.
About 70% of those questionnaires go unanswered either because they are never returned or returned without service because the prospective juror no longer lives at that address. Others are excused because they are students away at college, they own a small business that would have to shut down without them, or they have scheduled vacations or medical procedures, among other reasons, according to Capt. Diane Weaver, who runs the jury office along with three civilian employees. Judges have the authority to hold people in contempt of court through the same show-cause process for failing to answer the questionnaire, but so far haven’t taken that step.
Moss said that if more people filled out the forms, the problem would be solved.
The available jurors who haven’t been excused are notified by mail, and assigned a day each week that they could potentially be called throughout the month — it averages to about 100 jurors a day. The day before their assigned duty day, jurors are supposed to call the jury office and listen to a recording. If they hear their name, they are supposed to report to the John Marshall Courthouse on Ninth Street in downtown at 8:45 a.m.
One day last month, three trials were scheduled for the same day — two civil trials and one criminal. Officials said it was a lighter day in circuit court, where it is not unusual to see six trials a day.
All three trials went forward on Oct. 23, as scheduled, but just enough jurors were present to do so.
Virginia law requires state courts to summon at least 20 people for a felony criminal trial. The number is ultimately reduced to 12 after they are questioned for possible bias or peremptorily stricken by the prosecution and defense.
For civil trials, 13 potential jurors are needed, who are whittled down to seven.
Ideally, Weaver said, they try to start with a panel of 35 to 40 people for criminal trials, and 25 for civil. But that’s difficult with multiple trials a day and so many absences. Judges often ask for even larger panels, up to 80 people, if a case could extend several days or has received media attention.
“They don’t understand that these people aren’t going to just magically appear,” she said.
DesPortes said the court system should find new ways to communicate with potential jurors rather than relying on the postal service.
“Until new ways are found, the sheriff needs to greatly expand the jury pool. If 70% go unanswered, the system has to account for that,” she said in an email. “I think the day/call-in system (you are assigned a day of the week and only know the day before whether you have to report) is problematic. People forget their day, one day notice is insufficient, etc.
“Jury service is an important part of our justice system, but like virtually every facet of the justice system, we have been short-changing it and trying to operate without sufficient resources,” DesPortes continued. “We should financially treat jury service as the important civic duty that it is and allocate sufficient resources to provide transportation, substitute wages, and accommodate jurors’ schedules by providing ample notice of reporting days and limit the terms of potential service to no more than a month.”
Jennifer Curran agrees that communication should be improved.
She received a questionnaire in June, but asked for a deferral because her mother was having surgery that month. Like Taylor, who was summoned to court to explain her absence Nov. 1, Curran said she never heard back until last month when she was served a show-cause order after failing to report for duty in September.
The day after receiving the order, Curran said she was mailed another letter summoning her for jury duty in November. She was assigned to the Wednesday panel, meaning each Tuesday she was to call to find out if she needed to report the next day.
“Ironically, I had to call yesterday to check to see if I was supposed to be here today,” Curran said Wednesday after Judge C.N. Jenkins dismissed her show cause once she explained she was already serving this month. “So, theoretically, I could have been here, serving on a jury, while I needed to explain why I wasn’t here to serve in September.”
Curran said she has lived in the city for 25 years and estimates that she has been called to serve about every other. Though she thinks she had to report only one time, she said the process had worked all those years.
“I think it would be really cool,” she said. “I work for the city’s fire department so they’ve never put me on a jury. ... I know it’s a huge issue to get people to show up. I just wish there was a better process to communicate.”
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, will be the next speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and the commonwealth’s first female speaker.
House Democrats gathered at The James Center building in Richmond on Saturday and voted by secret ballot for Filler-Corn, 55, to lead them in January following their Tuesday takeover of the legislature.
Filler-Corn will succeed House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, whose party lost control of the House. She is already the minority leader and was challenged by Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, but won a majority on the first round of voting.
The 55 Democratic delegates and delegates-elect also backed Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, as the new majority leader and Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, as the caucus chair. Herring will be the first woman and first African American to serve as majority leader.
Filler-Corn will not become speaker until the House votes in January.
“This is a tremendous honor I don’t take lightly, and I’m ready to move forward,” Filler-Corn said. “We had a historic night on Tuesday and we had a historic day today, so I’m looking forward to continuing to stand up for the issues and values that are so important to Virginians. And we’re thrilled to be in the majority.”
Filler-Corn also will be the first Jewish House speaker in Virginia. Although the three incoming House Democratic leaders are all from Northern Virginia, Filler-Corn said, she will ensure geographic diversity in committee chairmanships.
Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement: “Virginia made history again today.” He added: "Together, we will defend the rights of women and minority groups, increase access to a world-class education and health care, fight climate change, and pass common-sense gun safety legislation.”
Filler-Corn is the director of government relations at Albers & Company, a lobbying and consulting firm in Arlington. She does not lobby state government and will continue to recuse herself on certain state legislative matters that lobbyists at her firm work on, a spokeswoman said last week.
Aird was viewed by some Democrats as being more progressive than Filler-Corn. Democrats who backed Aird also said it was time for an African American to hold power.
“While today’s outcome was disappointing, I could not be more proud from the outpouring of support, hope, and belief that was shown in my candidacy!” Aird tweeted after the vote. “I strongly believe that although I was unsuccessful, I know that for any young, black woman that one day dreams of rising to leadership the road will be that much easier.”
“I remain hopeful and optimistic about what we can accomplish as a party now unified behind a great leader in Speaker-designee Eileen Filler-Corn.”
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, who backed Aird, emerged from the meeting and told reporters, “Change is hard.”
The current House majority leader, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, issued a statement in which he congratulated Filler-Corn, but said Republicans are concerned that Democrats picked a leadership team “centered in the deepest parts of Northern Virginia.” Gilbert said the interests of all regions “deserve a fair hearing” in the legislative process.
In a separate statement, Gilbert said legislators will not be taking up gun bills Nov. 18, as planned, noting that “any legislation to come out of the special session” led by the current Republican majority “would likely be met with a veto.”
Dels. Luke Torian, D-Prince William, and Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, also said last week that they were putting in their names for speaker.
“To me, everyone is a leader in that room,” Herring said. “We are having fun today, and we are unified and ready to get to work.”
Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, made a bid for majority leader and lost.
“We’re super excited to have a majority now. I think so many good things will be done, looking forward to being able to advance a strong progressive agenda,” he said. “That is clearly the mandate that came from Virginians and from the Democratic base.”
Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, said she was excited to congratulate the first female House speaker.
“It’s a historic moment for all of us, and it’s a time for us to celebrate,” she said, declining to say whom she supported. “Women have a different perspective on some things, and we get to be a part of that in terms of the leadership.”
A “lifesaver” is how Richard Abbott describes Juanita Compton, a personal care assistant who comes to his Henrico County home several days a week.
Compton, a certified nursing assistant who works for Companion Extraordinaire Home Care Services, provides homemaker services such as cooking, cleaning and washing, along with some health-related services such as making sure Abbott takes his medications and accompanying him to doctor’s visits.
Beyond those daily needs, though, there is something equally or more important about Juanita’s regular visits, said Abbott, 89, whose wife, Julie, passed away earlier this year after 57 years of marriage.
“She’s a companion,” Abbott said. “What does a companion do? Does she sit there and look at an iPhone? No, she is someone you can sit and chat with. She is a friend.”
“She is compassionate,” said Abbott, who credits the home care he has received from Companion Extraordinaire with helping him deal with depression after the deaths of his wife and his daughter in less than two months.
A long-term care insurance policy that Abbott bought decades ago has covered most of his costs for in-home care. Asked how long he has had the policy, Abbott said “about $450,000 ago.”
The costs for all types of long-term care have continued to rise and are likely to continue doing so as the U.S. population ages and demand for such services grows, according to market observers.
Like Abbott, many Americans express a desire to “age in place” at home rather than at a skilled nursing facility. Notably, however, the fastest-rising cost is no longer for care at a nursing home, but for at-home care.
Costs have jumped significantly in just the last year, according to one recent survey of long-term care providers by Genworth Financial Inc., the Henrico County-based insurance company whose product lines include long-term care insurance.
Genworth’s annual survey of more than 15,000 long-term care providers nationwide showed that the median cost of homemaker services, which includes assistance with tasks such as cooking, cleaning and running errands, has increased 7.14% in the past 12 months alone.
The cost of a home health aide, which includes “hands-on” personal assistance with activities such as bathing, dressing and eating, has increased 4.55% nationally in the same period. Based on the Genworth survey results, that puts the median cost of homemaker services, nationally, at about $51,480 per year, and the cost of a home health aide at about $52,624.
That’s still only about half the national median cost of a private room in a skilled nursing facility at $102,200 per year, but the nursing facility costs grew at a much slower pace in the most recent survey — 1.8% compared with the previous year — while at-home-care costs have been trending upward for several years
“Historically, we have seen nursing home [costs] gradually increase,” said Gordon Saunders, a Genworth senior marketing manager who oversees the company’s cost-of-care survey. “We have come to expect that, but it is the in-home category that is really starting to catch our eye. We are seeing that has grown at a quicker pace than in the past.”
The good news for Virginia, Saunders said, is that costs in the state for nursing home and at-home care are still generally below the national median in all categories except assisted living facilities.
In this year’s survey, costs for nursing facility care even declined slightly in Virginia. However, the median cost for homemaker services in Virginia is rising quickly — it grew 10% from 2018 to 2019 to $50,336 a year, and the cost of a home health aide rose 9.4% to $52,578.
Costs can vary even within a state, though, and in the Richmond region, costs for long-term care services are generally higher than the national and state median, according to the survey results.
The 2019 survey showed the cost of homemaker and home health aide services skyrocketing in the Richmond region by 20% from 2018, to reach almost $55,000 a year each.
The survey showed costs for adult day health care in the Richmond region rising about 19% to $20,800 per year. Costs for a private room in a nursing facility were up less than 1% to $111,508 per year. Costs for an assisted living facility were down about 4% to $58,173.
Multiple trends are contributing to rising costs, including an aging population and changes in Medicare reimbursement policies that are prompting hospitals to send patients home with more post-acute care needs, Genworth said in its survey report.
The costs for long-term care providers of complying with regulations and mandates such as increasing minimum wage laws and overtime pay in some states are also a contributing factor, the company said.
Another factor in rising costs is a tight labor market, which increases competition for professionals. The demand for skilled professionals in long-term care is expected to rise.
About 70% of Americans over the age of 65 eventually will need some kind of long-term care, Saunders said. Genworth cited U.S. Department of Labor projections showing that the demand for home health aides and personal aides will increase 36%, from 3.2 million to 4.4 million, in the next 10 years.
“There is definitely a crisis in terms of the number of care providers available,” said Jay Mann, owner of the Amada Senior Care franchise in the Richmond market. “And those providers have a lot of options as to where they go, not just among different care providers but in other industries, too.”
Mann said he has about 80 caregivers on staff now, “and we try to hire about five a week to keep up with demand.”
“Not everyone who comes through our doors meets our requirements,” he said. Mann said he believes costs are rising not because of hourly rates, but because more people are using in-home care for longer periods of time.
Dawn Beninghove, the founder and chief operating officer of Companion Extraordinaire Home Care Services, said she also sees demand increasing in the Richmond market and difficulties finding skilled caregivers. The need will increase over the next 10 years and beyond as the population ages, and “the baby boomers such as myself have not saved as much” to cover the expenses as the previous generation did.
Her company has 130 employees serving 143 clients right now. Only 31 of those clients are covered by long-term care insurance.
Beninghove also said the costs of employee benefits “have just quadrupled in the last several years for us.”
The Genworth survey pegged the hourly cost of in-home care in the Richmond market at between $22 and about $24 per hour, which Mann and Beninghove said is in line with what they see in the market.
Beninghove said one of the difficulties is finding people who not only can do the labor of in-home care but also can approach the job with a sense of compassion, as with Abbott and his caregiver, Compton.
Compton, a Caroline County resident and a personal care assistant for 10 years, said she sees her work with Abbott as “more than a job” — it’s a calling.
Abbott, who retired from business 29 years ago and is a skilled woodworker, has even enlisted Compton’s help in doing some work in his backyard shop, which is full of all kinds of woodworking tools.
During Compton’s visits, when her homemaking work is done, the two are now working on making a wooden planter.
“Anyone can do the labor, but not anyone can come in and provide the companionship,” Beninghove said.