Rosewood's fate `left hanging'

Health department backs away from recommending closing center, official says

January 15, 2004|By Sara Neufeld and Michael Dresser | Sara Neufeld and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The state health department has backed away from a planned recommendation that the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills be closed, and instead is compiling a list of the pros and cons of closing it or another of Maryland's four institutions for the developmentally disabled, a health department official said.

The health department is two months late in meeting a Nov. 15 deadline to recommend which institution to close to the chairmen of the budget committees of the General Assembly, which convened yesterday. The department drafted a report recommending Rosewood's closure, only to decide not to submit it, according to a health department official familiar with the draft report who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions.

Del. Norman H. Conway, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he is no longer expecting a specific recommendation from the agency but a list of advantages and disadvantages of closing each facility.

J.B. Hanson, a health department spokesman, declined to comment about the contents of the report or the reason for its delay.

The delay has given institution residents' families, who do not want any facility to close, time to organize. The families have hired a lobbyist for the legislative session, where a decision could be made on the fate of the facilities.

At the same time, advocates for the disabled who want to see all institutions close say the state is taking far too long to move to community settings people who are unnecessarily segregated.

In addition to Rosewood, Maryland's remaining institutions are the Holly Center in Salisbury, the Potomac Center in Hagerstown and the Brandenburg Center in Cumberland. Brandenburg, with 20 residents, would seem an easy target for closure. But closing Rosewood, which with 200 residents is the largest of those remaining, would go the furthest in meeting the state's goal of moving all institution residents to community settings.

The issue of whether Rosewood and other institutions will remain open or whether their residents will move to small group homes is a highly emotional one. Many institution residents are middle-age and have lived there since they were children. Their families worry that they would not survive elsewhere, given their profound disabilities, complicated medical needs and behavior problems.

On the other side of the debate are advocates for the disabled, who say that with proper support and planning, all disabled people can live in community settings. State officials support that conclusion.

The fate of Rosewood, founded in 1888 as the Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded, has been hanging in the balance for years. Families fended off a state attempt to close the facility in 1989. Its population today is less than a tenth of what it was in 1970, when there were 2,744 residents.

As a result of the delayed report, families of institution residents have had time to raise money to hire Annapolis lobbyist J. William Pitcher, who will work with former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. on their behalf during the session.

But the delay has also left advocates on both sides of the debate anxious as they wait.

"We're frustrated because we feel like we're being left hanging," said Westminster resident Pat Christopher, whose son William Jonathan has lived at Rosewood for nearly 30 years and functions like a 2-month-old. Christopher is working on a scrapbook, showing pictures of Rosewood residents comfortable in their home, to take to Annapolis during the legislative session.

Advocates of the institution's closure, meanwhile, say the state has fallen far behind on its own timetable to move people out of institutions.

"There are people with mental retardation in state institutions in Maryland who by the state's own admission can be served in the community," said Cristine Marchand, executive director of the Arc of Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group. "These individuals' rights continue to be violated with each passing day, and we expect the administration to act quickly in rectifying these wrongs."

The delay has not upset Conway, who said he knows that the department's Developmental Disabilities Administration has been grappling with a lot of other issues. The DDA oversees the institutions and is writing the report on behalf of health department Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini.

Conway, a Wicomico County Democrat, said lawmakers will have to look at "all of the possibilities" but cast doubt on whether any of the facilities would be closed soon.

"I wouldn't say at this point that there's been any case made for closing," he said. "There's a lot of loose ends out there."

Among those loose ends are complications in plans to move Rosewood's 40 court-committed residents, who have been found incapable of standing trial or not criminally responsible for their crimes because of their disabilities. They would not move to group homes like the other residents if Rosewood were to close.

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