Gayle Hafner

Gayle Hafner ( )

Gayle Hafner, a senior staff attorney of the Maryland Disability Law Center and a co-founder of Medicaid Matters Maryland who was an outspoken advocate for those with disabilities, died March 22 of a heart attack during an operation at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

The longtime Towson resident was 60.

"A premier civil rights attorney, Ms. Hafner sounded a voice for children in foster care and people with disabilities," said Lauren Young, director of litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center.

"She used her body for civil protest and her mind in countless legal challenges. She freed people from facilities so they could reclaim their lives in our communities," said Ms. Young.

"She was a bulldog. Gayle had incredible in-depth knowledge of Medicaid law, and she'd use that law to help people find a better life outside of a nursing home," said Laura Carr, chair of Medicaid Matters Maryland, which works to expand and improve Medicaid.

"She really helped people realize that there were other paths they could choose, and just because they suffered a stroke, they didn't have to spend the rest of their lives in a nursing home being cared for," said Ms. Carr. "She showed people that they only thing that held them back were their own fears."

Mary Gayle Hafner — she never used her first name — was born and raised in Hannibal, Mo., where she graduated in 1971 from Hannibal High School.

When she was born, doctors told her family that she would not live to adulthood. She was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis when she was 4.

"She spent virtually her entire life in a wheelchair," said her husband of 12 years, Crosby King, a legal assistant at the Maryland Disability Law Center. "She was proud of being disabled."

Ms. Hafner earned a bachelor's degree in 1975 in classical civilizations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she returned to earn her law degree in 1979.

She was a VISTA volunteer at Sojourner Truth Women's Center, where she staffed a grass-roots domestic-violence services center, and was later a staff attorney for Southeast Missouri Legal Services. She was named staff attorney in 1981 of Legal Services of Northeast Missouri.

From 1985 to 1987, Ms. Hafner was the managing attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma in Tulsa, where she managed a nine-county area with two offices while carrying a full general poverty law caseload in state and federal courts.

Ms. Hafner came to Baltimore in 1987 and was a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau for a decade. She specialized in foster-care cases and negotiated extended reform of health care protections to children in kinship care, and represented hundreds of individual children in juvenile court.

She was an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings in Hunt Valley from 1997 to 1998, when she went to work at the Open Society Institute. There, she developed the Kinship Power Team, a mentoring project for kinship caregivers of foster children with disabilities.

In 1996, Ms. Hafner and plaintiffs Dale R. Reid, a lawyer, and Jacqueline Spencer, who was probating a will, all of whom were disabled, filed suit in federal court with help from the Public Justice Center to make Baltimore's two Circuit Court buildings fully accessible to the disabled.

Two years later, U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis ordered state officials to make the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse and Courthouse East on Calvert Street accessible to those who were disabled.

She was a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau in Towson for a year before joining the Maryland Disability Law Center in 2001, where she remained until her death. She was an indefatigable voice in support of better care and access for those with disabilities living in Maryland.

"Gayle was extraordinary and one of a kind, and already we're missing her," said Virginia Knowlton, executive director of the Maryland Disability Law Center. "She was an incredible advocate for people with disabilities, and she had the unique ability to lead people with disabilities."

In 2003, she co-founded Medicaid Matters Maryland with Lorraine Sheehan.

Ms. Knowlton said Ms. Hafner was a familiar figure in the legislative halls of Annapolis.

"She was instrumental in getting state officials and policymakers to get them to understand the impact of their decisions. She was the real voice, and that voice will be missed," she said.

"She was incredibly multifaceted, dynamic, energetic and was everywhere. Gayle always saw the big picture and had the view of how policies connect," said Ms. Knowlton. "She lived and breathed this her entire life."

She was a member of Not Dead Yet, a disability advocacy group. She was the co-founder of the Maryland chapter of ADAPT, an advocacy group that addresses transportation issues for the disabled in the Baltimore area and led to the introduction in 2001 by the MTA of 80 "talking buses" that helped blind bus riders.

"ADAPT's slogan was, 'Free Our People,'" said Ms. Young. "She wanted people to get their freedom back. She was a powerful person who kept her eye on the prize and that the barriers would come down that kept the disabled from access."

"She energized us all to do better, expect better, and achieve more milestones," said Ms. Carr.

Ms. Hafner enjoyed attending Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts.

The Towson resident was a member of the Bolton Hill Synagogue, where services were held Tuesday.

In addition to her husband, Ms. Hafner is survived by her mother, Frances Hafner Roberts of Stroudsburg, Pa.; two brothers, James A. Hafner Jr. of Marathon, Fla., and Robert C. Hafner of Summit, Mo.; and a sister, Jennifer H. Poole of Stroudsburg, Pa.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com