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State expands program for retarded $2.7 million slated for recent grads


Bertha Williamson didn't know what to do with her son, who has Down syndrome.

After graduating June 4 from a Baltimore school for the mentally disabled, she hoped to enroll him in a training program for mentally retarded adults.

But last week, she received a letter saying that although George Williamson, 21, qualified, there was not enough money in the state budget to enroll him.

"I was shocked. I thought he'd get services," said Mrs. Williamson, a widow and her son's sole care-giver. "I didn't know who to turn to. He was at home, bored, with nothing to do."

Then came the governor's announcement yesterday that an additional $2.7 million from a state budget surplus would be used for employment, training and in-home services for young adults like George.

Suddenly his future, which had appeared bleak, looked brighter.

"That is some good news," said Mrs. Williamson, of Baltimore. "I've said enough novenas. I guess it paid off."

Mr. Williamson is among 100 mentally disabled adults in Maryland who graduated this summer and now will receive training and services in sheltered workshops and day and residential programs through the expansion of a state effort called the Governor's Initiative for Transitioning Youth.

The initiative has helped 100 to 150 graduates of special education programs stay in supported jobs each year. But another 100 to 150 each year were left without any services or support because educational programs for the mentally retarded are mandated only until age 21.

"Rather than build on all the skills they had developed, they were allowed to deteriorate," said Secretary of Health Nelson J. Sabatini, adding that many mentally retarded adults ended up spending their days at home with nothing to do.

The $2.7 million earmarked to expand the initiative comes from a $10 million surplus in the state's Medical Assistance budget from the fiscal year that ended June 30. The money will be dispersed through many nonprofit organizations already serving mentally retarded adults, such as The Chimes Inc. and BARC in Baltimore and Providence Employment Services in Anne Arundel County.

The rest of the $10 million surplus is expected to be used for the mentally disabled, Mr. Sabatini said.

The state now spends about $300 million a year to serve about 12,000 mentally retarded adults. Most are in community-based programs, at a cost of $10,000 to $20,000 a year, Mr. Sabatini said.

Institutional placements, which account for 7 percent to 8 percent of those served, run as high as $70,000 a year.

About 7,000 mentally retarded adults are on a waiting list, he said. Until now, the number had grown each year as a new group of 21-year-olds were added to a group of adults requesting services.

"We're just elated with this news," said Cristine Marchand, executive director of the Arc of Maryland (formerly the Association of Retarded Citizens of Maryland), who said advocates had lobbied for these services for years.

Terry A. Perl, president of The Chimes, said providing additional services for young adults is a smart preventive strategy.

"The biggest reason for families seeking institutional placement is the lack of day programs," he said. "And institutions are a much more costly option."

Although he thinks the $2.7 million allocation is great news for students graduating this year, he worries about funding in subsequent years.

"We certainly welcome the availability of funds to serve more people," he said. "But this money must be annualized or it will further strap an already fragile system" when families expect the same services in coming years.

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