Center is facing closure

January 18, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

Mary Beth Wolford squeals with delight when she sees her mother come into the Potomac Center.

"Mama," she says, as Mary Jo Wolford leans down to give her wheelchair-bound daughter a hug and kiss.

It's one of the few words Mary Beth can say. At age 45, she has the intelligence of a 9-month-old. Still, she has no trouble communicating her love for her parents with smiles and gleeful noises.

But these days Bill and Mary Jo Wolford of Hagerstown are worried about their daughter's future.

State officials are contemplating closing the Potomac Center in Hagerstown, which has been Mary Beth's home for the last 25 years.

Three other similar centers for the profoundly mentally disabled in Cumberland, Owings Mills and Salisbury also are under scrutiny. The number of residents has dwindled as the state has moved many to less restrictive group homes.


Things have gotten so desperate that parents organized themselves and have hired a lobbyist to communicate their concerns to Gov. Robert Ehrlich and members of the Maryland General Assembly.

"It's gonna take a miracle," Mary Jo Wolford said. "But I believe in miracles."

Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Nelson J. Sabatini was expected to give a report in November recommending the closure of one of the centers.

Now, the report is being revised. Instead of recommending closure of one center, it will give the pros and cons of closing individual centers, lobbyist J. William Pitcher said.

Pitcher takes that as an encouraging sign. He believes the department changed course after realizing there aren't any alternative living arrangements in the community for many of the residents.

The report was not ready as of Friday, said John Hammond, a spokesman for the department. He could not say when it would be released.

Federal law requires that the mentally retarded live in the least restrictive environment possible.

For that reason, the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration has been placing more people in community-based living arrangements.

No one has been admitted to the Potomac Center or the three other institutions since 1996, with the exception of several court-ordered cases, Pitcher said.

As a consequence, the population at the four centers has dropped from about 1,300 to 400 in the last several years, he said.

Those that remain are some of the most profoundly developmentally disabled people in the state, he said.

Advocates for the mentally retarded believe all of them could eventually be placed in community settings.

"I guess that's true, just like anyone can be placed on the moon," Pitcher said.

Their loved ones said they need the structure and intensive care that the institutions provide.

Mary Beth's cerebral palsy has caused physical problems. She can't see and sometimes she has grand mal seizures.

"You're not going to be able to hire an $8-an-hour babysitter," Bill Wolford said. "We're very concerned about this one-size-fits-all mentality."

Helen Abbott of Hagerstown believes her 59-year-old son Emmett would not survive in a group home.

"He needs constant care, around the clock. He's a very precious old fella," she said.

In addition to responding to the pending report, Pitcher said he will work with the department to give new life to the underused centers.

The centers could provide temporary housing when caregivers go on vacation or need a break, he said.

They also could be used as health-care training centers.

"I think the department is going to be amenable to what we want to do," Pitcher said.

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