In Md., anguish for parents of retarded adults

Rosewood: As the state weighs closing the center and moving residents to group homes, their families face wrenching questions.

October 27, 2003|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Miriam Leda, 84, has survived a stroke and a heart attack and buried her husband. With driving getting difficult, she moved five years ago from Dundalk to Owings Mills so as never to be more than a mile from her elder daughter, Charlene.

Charlene, 50 and mentally retarded, has lived at the state-run Rosewood Center since she was 13. Miriam is certain Charlene would not survive anywhere else. "I know the difference between what kind of child can live in the community and what kind cannot," she says.

She knows because her younger daughter, Kathy, is retarded, too. At 47, Kathy doesn't have severe behavior problems like her sister's, so her mother can handle her at home.

But Charlene may have to leave Rosewood, and soon. As state officials consider closing the institution and shifting its longtime residents to group homes, Miriam and dozens of other elderly parents are at an anguishing crossroads.

These parents have long taken comfort in believing their disabled children will be secure at the institution after they die. Now they must confront the possibility of a wrenching change just as they are thinking about their own mortality.

Rosewood was founded in 1888 as the Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded. Today, nearly 20 of its buildings, including the ivy-covered, gray-columned administration office, are filled with lead and asbestos and boarded up. The state has sold more than half of its sprawling campus. And though Rosewood housed 2,744 people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities in 1970, only 205 residents remain.

Now, Rosewood faces a final, fatal blow. Maryland has four such institutions left, and legislators have asked the health department to recommend by next month one for closure. The move comes as state officials weigh other cuts, such as shutting the Crownsville psychiatric hospital in Anne Arundel County.

As Nelson J. Sabatini, Maryland's top health official, considers which institution to recommend for closing, the Brandenburg Center in Cumberland, with 23 residents, would seem an easy target. The Holly Center in Salisbury and the Potomac Center in Hagerstown are also options.

But Rosewood employees and families are certain their institution - the largest of those remaining - is the one. Closing Rosewood would save Maryland the most money and go the furthest in meeting the state's goal of moving all institution residents to small group homes, where they can interact with the outside world.

Sabatini, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says it is premature to comment on Rosewood's future. He adds, however, that Maryland's institutions will "continue to get smaller."

For many advocates of the developmentally disabled, closing Rosewood would be a triumph. They say segregating even the most severely disabled from society is a civil rights violation on par with sending black children to separate schools. But for many elderly parents of Rosewood residents, keeping their children in the only home they've known for decades is a matter of survival; they believe the death of Rosewood would mean the death of their children.

These parents, who fended off a state attempt to close the facility in 1989, don't argue with the widely accepted conclusion that the vast majority of developmentally disabled people are better off without institutions. But painful questions surround the small minority at Rosewood and places like it: those with profound retardation, complicated medical needs and behavior problems. One Rosewood father calls them "the bottom of the barrel."

Jeannie Brown is among those left. She is 45 but functions like a 1-year-old. She has lived at Rosewood since she was 7. There are no photos or keepsakes out in her room, which she shares with two other residents, but it is neat and clean.

Eighty pounds with cropped brown hair, porcelain skin and size 2 sneakers, Jeannie doesn't speak or make any noise, except to coo as she rocks herself back and forth. She walks hesitantly, halting whenever the floor's color or texture changes - and sometimes stops walking for days at a time. She is learning, slowly, to climb a few stairs and to feed herself. She drools, sucks her thumb and wears diapers.

Jeannie's father, Glenn Brown, wants her to stay at Rosewood because he thinks she is safest there.

On a sunny fall afternoon, he stood in the hallway of a building where Jeannie spends her days going to physical therapy, eating, resting and watching television, her eyes often focused on the wall. In an oversize red sweat suit, with caregivers at her side, Jeannie took one deliberate step at a time in his direction.

"How ya doin,' kid?" the 76-year-old Hyattsville resident asked as he kissed the top of his daughter's head. She looked at the ceiling.

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