Dozens of disabled adults and their advocates pleaded for the General Assembly to close the Rosewood Center, a state-run facility in Baltimore County that they said is unsafe and unnecessarily confining.
But others say the center, which was the subject of a scathing inspection report in January, is much improved in recent years and provides crucial support for those who can't get proper care elsewhere.
State troopers rearranged the seats in the House of Delegates' Heath and Government Operations hearing room yesterday afternoon so a row of people in wheelchairs, many of them former Rosewood residents living on their own, could roll up to the microphones.
"We have members who used to live at Rosewood," said Ken Capone, the head of the Cross Disability Rights Coalition, who has cystic fibrosis and uses a computer to speak. "They speak of abuse, neglect and isolation while they lived there. No resident of Maryland should have to be afraid of where they live."
A series of state investigative reports and letters over the past several months have documented cases in which employees at the center in Owings Mills, which serves the extremely and chronically disabled, failed to take steps to prevent violence or to investigate the acts.
Recent problems include the case of a 22-year-old patient who shoplifted a knife on a field trip to a nearby Target store and used it to stab another patient.
State reports documented 77 incidents of patient-on-patient violence there between October and January. Investigators found that staff members failed to take corrective action in a third of the cases.
Former Rosewood residents who testified said that no matter the conditions in the center, they much prefer living independently.
The bill legislators are considering, sponsored by Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, calls for the state to help Rosewood patients make the transition to group homes and other community-based service providers.
"People don't need to be living there," said Michael Taylor, who spent 30 years in Rosewood and now lives in an apartment in Towson. "They need to live in the community, because it's a good setting to be free. Institutions are not a good place to have freedom."
Other former residents said they have found jobs and spouses now that they are living in the community, something they never could have done at Rosewood.
But Glenn M. Brown of Hyattsville said his daughter, Jean, who has lived in Rosewood for 41 years, has found a caring home at the institution. Jean Brown has the functional ability of an infant, but her father said the staff at Rosewood has helped her learn to feed herself, walk up and down stairs and handle other activities he didn't think were possible.
"She's very happy living there," Glenn Brown said.
Heather and Greg Higdon of Crownsville said they didn't know where to turn when their son, Danny, who is autistic and mentally retarded, became increasingly aggressive and violent two years ago.
At the time, Danny Higdon was 6-foot-2 and 350 pounds, and he was taking out his aggravation on his parents, Heather Higdon said.
"I was getting hurt," she said.
Only at Rosewood was he able to get the combination of services and the intensity of care he needed, Greg Higdon said.
"They worked with him day and night," Heather Higdon said. "Now he's in a group home, he's going to school and he's doing fine."