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Health secretary tours the Potomac Center

August 12, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini toured the Potomac Center in Hagerstown on Monday morning and assured residents' families there are no immediate plans to close the center, which houses profoundly developmentally disabled adults.

However, Sabatini's department is preparing for the Maryland General Assembly a report on all four such institutions in the state and recommending which one, if any, should close, he said.

During the tour of the center's 23-acre campus on Marshall Street, the group peeks in on a small group of residents watching country music performers on television. An employee rubs lotion on one resident's hands.

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Ten residents have physical as well as mental disabilities, which is why they rarely leave Potomac Center. The other 50 residents at the center are shuttled to therapy elsewhere for an average of six hours a day, said Director Steve Smith.

Residents live in one of five cottages. Their surroundings are plush, with nicely decorated bedrooms, tile bathrooms and well-kept gardens.

On a budget of $8.7 million, the center employs more than two people for every resident.

But the 25-year-old center has not taken in a new resident since 1996 and its population has dwindled to less than half of what it was a decade ago.

The center also is doing less respite care, which means providing temporary housing for people with disabilities who are being cared for at home, Smith said.

Federal law requires the state to place residents in the least restrictive environment possible and the families of today are opting for community placements, said Developmental Disabilities Administration Director Diane Coughlin.

Developmentally disabled adults now have more than 40 private programs to choose from, most of which were not available when Potomac Center opened, she said.

Nearly 10,000 people statewide are waiting for services.

Potomac Center advocates said people could be placed at the institution with little to no cost because the staff and buildings already are there.

On Monday afternoon, about a hundred employees and residents' family members gathered at the center's gymnasium to discuss ways to keep the center open.

"Potomac Center is a jewel in our community that very few people realize is here," said organizer and parent Bill Wolford of Hagerstown.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, whose office organized the tour, said he'll work to keep the center open.

One way is to open up the campus for all kinds of services for those with mental disabilities, he said.

Wolford said he was encouraged by Monday's events.

"The response from the legislators and the administration is wonderful. It shows that they're interested," he said.

Maryland operates three other institutions for those who are profoundly mentally retarded. Holly Center in Salisbury has about 115 residents. Brandenburg Center in Cumberland has about 23 residents and Rosewood Center in Owings Mills has about 200 residents, Coughlin said.

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