By Laura Schwartzman
Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Gov. Martin O'Malley signed an executive order Tuesday to close Rosewood Center, drawing mixed emotions over a plan to relocate all residents from the 120-year old facility for the developmentally disabled.

At an early afternoon press conference in front of the center's administration building, advocates for the disabled, former residents, family members and employees stood through a snow flurry to hear the final fate of Rosewood, a state-run home plagued in recent years by accusations of abuse, neglect and unsafe conditions.

Many applauded as O'Malley announced the center's closure, which will take place over the next 18 months. But not everyone was relieved.

Some families and Rosewood employees are now questioning their futures.

Most of the 156 residents will be offered home and community-based settings, which studies show are the most effective treatment for individuals with developmental disabilities, O'Malley said.

"No one will be left behind," said John Colmers, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

But Mary Hom, 54, of Baltimore, is skeptical and nervous. Her profoundly retarded brother Richard Nilsson, 48, has been at Rosewood since 1990.

"He's not going to last a day in a group home," she said. "He needs a team to take care of him."

She praised Rosewood for providing "excellent care" through a team approach and worries that smaller facilities aren't properly equipped and staffed to care for him.

Advocacy groups for the disabled have denounced Rosewood and worked to close it down for years following the December 2000 death of a resident who was restrained at the time. The incident sparked federal and state investigations into the facility.

A 2001 federal survey found improper use of seclusion, restraints and sedation. A Maryland Office of Health Care Quality survey in 2006 found staff had failed to protect residents from harm, including injuries resulting from fights.

A ban on admissions to Rosewood was imposed in January 2007.

Anna Burkett, 54, of Annapolis, lived at Rosewood for more than three years. She described seeing residents "punished for no reason" and being forced to "scrub the floor on hands and knees."

Advocacy groups for the disabled hailed Rosewood's closure as a civil rights victory, part of a larger push to integrate more disabled individuals into their communities.

"This is a historic day for us," said Rachel London, an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center. The center, established by federal and state law, called for Rosewood's closure in a 2007 report which decried the facility's unsanitary conditions and inability to care for residents humanely.

But Diana Lyles, vice president of AFSCME Local 422, which represents Rosewood employees, said staff provide "outstanding care" to residents.

"We love them like they're our own family," she said, adding that many employees are saddened by the news. O'Malley said the state will help place employees at other institutions or agencies.

Pam Matheson, whose adopted son Matthew Matheson, 37, was institutionalized at Rosewood as a child, agreed that the facility has many caring staff. But Matheson welcomed the center's closing, citing physical and emotional cruelty she witnessed during her son's stay.

"There are wonderful workers at Rosewood who really care for people, and there are satisfied, loving parents," she said. "But it's not a good thing for anyone to have to live in an institution."