Outcry may force removal of court-committed mentally retarded at Rosewood

November 15, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Angry Owings Mills residents, supported by their state senator, have forced a state health official to promise to remove potentially violent mentally retarded persons -- many of them sex offenders -- held under court commitment at the Rosewood Center.

In the face of the community uprising, sparked by several violent incidents involving Rosewood patients, Dr. Lois M. Meszaros, director of the Developmental Disabilities Administration, said at Thursday night meeting, held at Franklin High School in Reisterstown, that she has started looking for a new facility for the people in question.

She said she inspected a building at the Clifton T. Perkins Center, but it was unsuitable and could not be licensed to take the mentally retarded. Next week, she said she will inspect facilities at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

"The decision has been made that we will be moving the people," she said. "I just can't tell you when."

When she told the audience she didn't know whether all 18 patients under court commitment in the two security buildings can be relocated, people shouted that they all must go.

Dr. Meszaros appeared bewildered by the community's

vehement reaction. She later said they seemed to have lost sight of the patients as human beings, who have rights. She told the audience each person is evaluated and judged for potential violence.

"You should assume every one is dangerous until you evaluate them and find out they are not," said a man in the audience.

The Rosewood controversy erupted last summer after a patient escaped and was accused of the arson of an Arcadia skating rink. It was aggravated recently when a female minister was assaulted.

Under fierce questioning and shouts of "how dare you do this to our community," Dr. Meszaros acknowledged it was her decision to place the patients, mostly adolescents or males in their early 20s, at Rosewood. She said there was no other place locally for them.

With the 1991 closure of the Victor Cullen Center in Frederick County, Rosewood became the only feasible place for violent, court-committed patients from the Baltimore area, said Dr. Meszaros. There are six such centers across the state.

Her commitment to move those patients may have been premature, however. Michael J. Golden, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, attended the meeting and has suggested that the people would stay at Rosewood.

"She may have spoken out of turn," he said.

Violent population grows

In an interview Thursday morning, Nelson J. Sabatini, secretary of DHMH, said probably only the pedophiles at Rosewood should be transferred. He also said the law forces him into a delicate balancing act.

"These are human beings," he said, adding that he must provide treatment in the least restrictive environment, while also recognizing "my obligation to protect the rights and security of the community."

In addition to the 18 court commitments, Rosewood houses about 250 so-called regular mentally retarded patients, many of whom have multiple disabilities. Criminal court commitments have increased in recent years.

In 1990, there were three court commitments; six in 1991 and nine this year. Dr. Meszaros could not explain the increase, except to say that more defendants might be using mental retardation as a defense in court cases.

Neither Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr., chief judge of the Baltimore County Circuit Court, nor Deputy State's Attorney Howard Merker said they have noticed any trend toward an increased number of mental retardation defenses.

The court commitments are made after a defendant requests an evaluation. Defendants found to be mentally retarded are sent to Rosewood. Those found to be mentally ill are sent to Perkins. They are not convicted of the crimes of which they are accused.

Piccinini petitions state

Sen. Janice Piccinini, D-10th, said Dr. Meszaros' pledge was the first bit of progress toward a resolution. She and several citizens have accused department officials of stonewalling on information and denying that any problem existed.

"I've been working on this since April and this is the first time I've gotten anything," she said.

If the department doesn't follow through and remove the violent patients, Ms. Piccinini said she expects community associations will sue on grounds that Rosewood has never been a high-security institution and is inappropriate.

After the most recent incident, fear and anger swept the neighborhood surrounding the century-old mental hospital, said Ms. Piccinini. For years, she said, Rosewood's neighbors were accustomed to "docile" patients walking away and being treated kindly by the neighbors.

However, this year's violent incidents, involving "the new type of patients," have created an atmosphere of mistrust and fear that makes the community unwilling to accept the patients, she said.

Before the complaints began, Ms. Piccinini was working with state planning officials to market the old stone Rosewood

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