Center's closure debated at rally

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The two faces of the debate over whether to close Maryland's institutions for developmentally disabled people confronted each other last night in the auditorium at one such place - the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills.

Sitting in the front row in a crowd of more than 250 people was Jim Belt, who fears that his son, Bob, 42, will die if he leaves Rosewood, the only home he has known since age 10.

"If I thought he could handle it out there, he'd be out tomorrow," said Belt, 78, whose son is profoundly retarded and has a seizure disorder.

Off to the side of the room was Missy Perrott, 39, who grew up in an institution and went on to marry a nondisabled man and have a career despite her inability to speak or use her hands because of cerebral palsy. She has communicated her belief that keeping the developmentally disabled in institutions is like keeping them in prison.

For the past few decades, states around the country have worked to move developmentally disabled residents out of institutions. Rosewood has 205 residents, down from its peak of 2,744 in 1970.

A fierce debate is raging over those remaining at Rosewood and in other institutions because their cases are among the most complicated.

The purpose of organizers of the rally was to persuade the state not to close Rosewood, a 115-year-old institution.

The General Assembly's budget committees have asked the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to recommend by November one of its four institutions for closure. Rosewood families, employees and community members suspect the department will recommend that it be the one closed.

Most of those who attended the rally want to keep Rosewood open, but opponents also came out to raise their voices.

Amid dozens of red-and-white "Save Rosewood" signs were posters reading "Free Our People" and "Don't Separate Me." Three people - two in wheelchairs and a third who grew up at Rosewood - held a banner that read, "No-More-Institutin-For-My-Bothers-Sistrs."

Speakers supporting Rosewood were often interrupted by chants of "No more stolen lives!" Several politicians, including all three delegates and the state senator representing the area, turned out to express support for keeping the institution open, albeit in a limited capacity.

Most remaining Rosewood residents are profoundly retarded and have complex medical needs or behavior problems. Many are middle-age and have lived there since they were young children, and their families, like Belt's, fear that they would not survive outside an institution. Family members also don't want their loved ones separated from caregivers who in some cases have worked with the residents for years.

On the other side of the debate are advocates for the disabled who want to see all institutions closed, saying they segregate people unnecessarily. They believe that, with proper support and planning, all disabled people can live in community settings - a conclusion that state officials support.

Even if the state does not decide to close Rosewood now, it will cease to exist eventually if the policy of not admitting new residents continues.

The goal of the rally was to sell the state on a plan to use Rosewood as a resource center to train group-home caregivers, to provide medical care to group-home residents when they are ill, to maintain care for the current residents, and to lift the state's freeze on admissions.

Rally participants are not striving to keep Rosewood open at the expense of one of the other three institutions in Hagerstown, Cumberland and Salisbury. They argue that the state must provide a choice between institutions and group homes.

That rationale is based on a 2000 Supreme Court ruling that states must place institutionalized people in less restrictive settings when professionals deem it appropriate - as long as the affected individuals do not object.

Federal law requires states to serve the disabled in the "least restrictive" setting possible. Nine states and the District of Columbia no longer have any institutions for the developmentally disabled.

Rosewood has the largest population of the four remaining institutions, so closing it would go the furthest in meeting the state's goal of moving everyone into community-based settings. It also could potentially save the state the most money, depending on the cost of residents' transition to group homes.

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