ANNAPOLIS – Harry Yost has heard it all before.
Rosewood Center, the state’s largest residential facility for people with developmental disabilities, is unsanitary and its residents endangered.
People with disabilities can have fuller, more active lives when they live in the community.
Rosewood should be closed.
But Yost, whose son Larry has lived at Rosewood for 45 years, doesn’t see it that way. “My wife and I sleep very good” knowing Larry is there and not in a group home, Yost said.
Group homes do not have the same oversight as Rosewood and some have as few as one staff member working at a time, Yost said. At Rosewood, “the standards are great and there’s so many knowledgeable” staff.
For now, Yost has two powerful allies: Gov. Martin O’Malley and state Health Secretary John Colmers have resisted calls from advocates and people with disabilities to close the Owings Mills facility.
Some of those advocates rallied Wednesday and tried to deliver a list of demands, which included closing Rosewood in the next 12 to 18 months, to the front gate of the governor’s mansion.
“Those of us” who have lived both in an institution and the community “can say which is better,” said Missy Perrott, who lived at the now-closed Great Oaks Center in Prince George’s County as a child. “Our voices should carry the most weight.”
The advocates were eventually turned away by police, who said they had a permit to rally but not march.
The governor has declined to meet with those advocating Rosewood’s closure because he is focused on the state’s deficit, said a spokesman, who added that O’Malley has “every confidence” in Colmers’ ability to correct deficiencies at Rosewood.
The latest uproar followed last month’s report by the state’s Office of Health Care Quality that found “life-threatening” conditions such as sewage leaks, violent behavior by residents and inattentive and medically dangerous care by staff at Rosewood. Reports last year and in January found similar deficiencies.
Colmers said after the last report that his department will concentrate on fixing the problems and will look long-term at community placement for residents, as the General Assembly mandated last session. Rosewood Director Robert Day said he has already implemented new staffing policies to address many of the deficiencies.
But some former residents of Rosewood and similar institutions say there is no place for such facilities anymore. Even Day has said that institutions are “an idea that has come and gone.”
Michael Taylor, who lived at Rosewood for 30 years until leaving in 1999, said staff used “to twist my arm” and try to hurt residents. Taylor now has an apartment in Towson and a job at Best Buddies Maryland. He watches “The Tonight Show” whenever he wants.
“I love my freedom,” he said.
At Wednesday’s rally, other former residents talked of often horrifying experiences at Rosewood.
Joe Peddicord, who began living in the community over 30 years ago, said he was paid in cigarettes for his work on Rosewood’s laundry truck and that staff would ask him to intimidate or strike other residents, but he refused.
Pam Mathison, herself disabled, first met her adopted son, Matthew, when he was a 6-year-old at Rosewood. Matthew weighed 15 pounds then and his eyes were so infected that pus flowed when touched.
Staff “wasn’t purposefully neglectful,” Mathison said. “They just didn’t know the right way” to care for Matthew, now 37 and “never . . . healthier.”
Not all Rosewood residents had experiences like that, said Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services for Persons with Developmental Disabilities. But “I don’t think those stories are unusual” either, even though some occurred decades ago.
The “unacceptable conditions” found in state surveys since 2006 have proven what can happen at Rosewood.
But Yost says Rosewood is not the facility it was decades ago. While Larry used to be housed in a cottage with about 60 others, Yost said, he now lives with “15 people and there are private rooms.”
Yost and his wife, Tink, are so comfortable with Larry’s care that they usually visit once a month. If Larry was moved to the community, Yost said a family member would check in daily.
“He gets a lot more personal attention” now, he said.
There is a good reason for that: Rosewood’s population is down sharply, from 623 residents in 1987 to 166 today.
Over the last two decades, similar facilities nationwide have closed or gotten smaller, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that patients have a right to be treated in the least restrictive setting possible.
Despite the Yosts’ concerns, Howell said studies show that parents of institutionalized patients eventually get over their skepticism about community treatment.
During the transition, there is often “fear and not a complete understanding of what services are available” in the community, she said. But once their child is in a home in the community, parents usually “express appreciation and are pleased with the transition.”
Which is why, despite getting the cold shoulder from O’Malley, advocates plan to press on.
“We’ve been working 30 some years to try and close” Rosewood, said Peddicord, who now lives in Annapolis and has two jobs. “We’re going to keep” going until “it gets done.”
Still, Yost remains opposed to any move for Larry.
Is it easier to care for “170 people in one place” or “170 spread over 30 or 60 miles?” he asks.