Rosewood Center facing U.S. civil rights investigation

The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation of the long-troubled Rosewood Center to determine whether conditions at the state's largest facility for profoundly disabled adults violate the residents' civil rights.

Although the institution is set to close next summer, federal authorities will look into the treatment of residents, including safety issues and medical care, along with plans for their placement in the community, according to a letter sent to Gov. Martin O'Malley.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined yesterday to discuss details of the investigation, but state officials said federal investigators have requested numerous documents pertaining to policies, procedures and behavior-management techniques, as well as meeting minutes and staffing organizational charts.

Those officials said conditions at Rosewood have improved significantly since reports last year of serious problems at the Owings Mills facility. The reported problems included a resident with a history of violence who stabbed another resident with a knife he stole on a field trip, patients receiving inadequate nutrition from feeding tubes and a woman who did not receive medical care for two weeks after ripping off her toenails.

"I think they're responding to issues that were problematic then that are no longer problematic today," said Michael S. Chapman, director of the state's Developmental Disabilities Administration.

Justice Department officials have not issued subpoenas or visited the facility, but they might visit next month, Chapman said. The letter informing the governor of the investigation was sent last month.

In January, O'Malley announced plans to close the 120- year-old facility, which housed about 3,700 people at its peak. Today, 127 live there, and administrators are working closely with relatives to move each one to a smaller environment where they can receive the care they need, Chapman said.

Virginia Knowlton, director of the Maryland Disability Law Center, which released a report last year detailing dangerous conditions at Rosewood, said she was surprised that the Justice Department was beginning the investigation now.

"It seems a little behind the curve since the decision has already been made to close the facility," she said. "Perhaps the purpose is to monitor the closing process and oversee that transition."

According to the letter, the Justice Department will investigate the state's efforts to ensure compliance with federal law and look for "systemic violations of constitutional or other federal rights." If violations are observed, the department will issue written findings, recommend remedies, and provide financial and technical assistance to the state.

Jamie Hais, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said she was unable to comment on when the investigation is expected to be completed.

Under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the Justice Department may investigate allegations of abuse or neglect if the attorney general has previously notified state officials of a problem in writing, suggested corrections and allowed state officials "reasonable time to take appropriate corrective actions."

In recent months, no significant problems have come to light in the state-mandated incident reports that Rosewood submits to the Maryland Disability Law Center, Knowlton said. The Justice Department has not asked Knowlton's office for information, although the center would be glad to assist in the investigation, she said.

The state's Office of Health Care Quality recently completed its annual review of the facility, although the results have not been made public, according to its director, Wendy Kronmiller. In September, her office released a 160- page report documenting numerous problems including staff members' inability to control violent residents, missed mealtimes and indications that some residents repeatedly choke on food.

The facility was founded in 1888 as the Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded and later named Rosewood State Hospital and Rosewood Center. Concerns about treatment there go back many years.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, there were reports of rape, abuse, neglect, overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. One resident reportedly drowned in a bathtub. A 1981 Justice Department report found that residents "failed to receive minimally adequate care."

The population of residents dwindled in recent decades as more families chose to keep disabled residents at home or place them in smaller care centers. In January 2007, new admissions to Rosewood were halted after a resident was found to be in immediate danger, and in August last year, the facility was found to be noncompliant in seven of eight conditions of licensure.

Some disability advocacy groups rejoiced when informed of plans to close Rosewood, but the families of some residents protested, saying that their loved ones had been treated well.

Elsie Platner, 82, of Severna Park said yesterday that she was pleased with the care her daughter received at Rosewood. Although her daughter was occasionally bitten or punched by other residents, the staff did the best they could, she said.

Platner said that in May she moved her daughter, now 49, to a home run by Catholic Charities in Timonium only because of Rosewood's pending closure.

"If it hadn't been for this, I wouldn't have moved her for anything," she said.

Chapman said that conditions at Rosewood have improved as the staff has focused on caring for residents while making other arrangements for them.

"You don't like for the Justice Department to come into a facility, but we have to demonstrate that we are doing what we need to be doing to ensure [the residents'] safety and welfare," he said