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Great Oaks patients severely mistreated, U.S. agency charges


Retarded residents of a state-run institution in Silver Spring have been drugged, ignored and restrained in violation of their constitutional rights, the U.S. Justice Department has charged in a letter to Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Reciting a litany of abuses, a high-ranking Justice Department official charged that self-abusive patients at Great Oaks Center have been issued helmets and arm restraints rather than therapy, that patients have been given tranquilizers "for the convenience of staff" and that many have regressed because they were largely ignored.

"A number of residents have lost the ability to feed themselves, walk or propel their wheelchairs," John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division, said in a January letter. He also called on the governor to enter into a legal agreement to remedy the problems.

Yesterday, Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini said he would "not take issue" with the Justice Department's characterization of Great Oaks and would soon complete a plan to bring the institution into compliance with federal law. But he said the federal report did not reflect recent improvements because it was based on inspections stretching from 1986 to 1990 -- and not beyond.

"I think we need to work with Justice; it's not my intention to start an argument with Justice through the media," Mr. Sabatini said, adding that an April survey by state inspectors found no serious problems at Great Oaks.

Mr. Sabatini was not specific about the nature of improvements made at the center, saying only that the state was spending more money and housing fewer patients at Great Oaks now than at any time in the center's nearly 15-year history.

When the Justice Department's investigations began in 1986, he said, an average of 427 patients lived at Great Oaks. Since then, the patient population had dropped to 265 in May 1990, when federal officials last visited the center, and later to its current level of 250. Over the same five-year span, annual spending has increased from $16.1 million to almost $22 million.

Saying he wanted to see Great Oaks for himself, Mr. Schaefer toured the center on Monday but apparently found conditions more to his liking than did the Justice Department officials.

"The governor was really impressed with the facility when he was out there on Monday," Page Boinest, a Schaefer spokeswoman, said yesterday. "It is very neat. Patients appeared to be well taken care of. It really looked like a top-notch facility."

But in his nine-page letter, Mr. Dunne of the Justice Department said the shortage of trained psychologists and treatment programs "places residents at substantial risk of harm to their personal safety."

Mr. Sabatini said the state may be able to remedy the problems for less than $5 million, the amount federal officials said it would cost to end abuses that existed in 1990 when Great Oaks was larger.

The Justice Department is asking the state to accede to a consent decree that could be enforced by the courts, although no documents have been made public yet.

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