Conditions at Forest Haven, the District-run institution for the mentally retarded, were the focus of testimony last week on a proposed City Council bill to guarantee civil rights for the mentally retarded.
The bill, called the Mentally Retarded Citizens Constitutional Rights and Dignity Act of 1977, is designed to eliminate unwarranted institutionalization by making it harder to get in and easier to get out of institutions.
Sponsored by Council Member Arrington Dixon, the bill outlines procedures and regulations intended to provide the mentally retarded with appropriate educational and habilitational programs. It also would guarantee that lawyers and advocates will be provided during commitment procedures and during institutionalization.
Witnesses at the hearing claimed that Forest Haven, located in Laurel, Md., does not provide the mentally retarded with proper treatment, education and medical care. City officials, however, said there have been marked improvements at Forest Haven in the last year.
Some of the strongest charges against Forest Haven were levied by Harry Fulton, a lawyer and chief of the Mental Health Division of the District's Public Defender Service. He testified that, "Forest Haven, contrary to its idyllic name and laudatory purpose, is a dumping ground for unwanted persons."
Citing 1976 investigations, he said that "fully 25 per cent of Forest Haven's population is not even mentally retarded and that almost half could live in the community with varying degrees of assistance."
According to testimony by Forest Haven Superintendent Fred Perry, "not more than five or six" of the facility's approximately 1,100 residents were returned to the community last year, although about 120 Forest Haven residents are in community-based programs.
Department of Human Resources (DHR) Director Albert Russo commented later that so few persons have been released from the institution because it is very difficult for them to adjust to and cope with the demands of community living.
Russo said that in the last year Forest Haven underwent extensive changes and improvements, administratively and physically.
Administratively, he said, a new management structure places the operation of Forest Haven "under a management-medical team." Under this plan, the superintendent is a non-medical, business manager and the deputy superintendent is a physician.
He also said the staff has been increased by 210 persons, bringing the total to about 800.
Among other administrative changes, Russo noted, are new assessment programs and developments in educational and vocational services. Residents, he said, now are "grouped according to individual needs and skill and developmental levels.
"Important to the quality of life of residents of Forest Haven have been improvements to the physical environment of this facility. Renovation of the main kitchen is nearly completed. Major repairs to the residential buildings are underway . . . which make living conditions exceedingly more home-like."
Fulton, who called the 52-year-old facility an "outmoded physical plant" that ultimately should be phased out, later said the improvements did not attack the real problems at the institution. "Rebuilding a kitchen just doesn't do it," he said.
"Over a long period of time," he added, "even under the gun of critical evaluations, very little was done" to improve the facility, and despite Russo's claims, it is "the same as it's been."
Russo, however, said he has seen "some dramatic, remarkable improvement of the quality of life, especially in the Medicaid cottages." He added that considerable improvements also have been made in non-medicaid sections. About 40 percent of Forest Haven residents are Medicaid patients who are profoundly to severely retarded, Russo said.
Harold Evans, who represented the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens (DCARC) and the Mayor's Committee on the Handicapped, questioned Russo's statements and referred to a statement in the mayor's proposed budget for fiscal 1979, which was presented to the City Council three months ago.
" . . . Active planning for residents in the non-Medicaid eligible units is seriously hampered by funding shortages. Therefore, adequate services cannot be provided for the approximately 600 residents in this category. Further, individualized training and education will be inadequate."
Evans added. "It is clear from this shocking and appalling statement that there is no serious commitment to a significant deinstutionalizaion effort planned in the foreseeable future and that the Constitutional rights of these residents to minimally adequate habilitation . . . will continue to be brutally violated."
Evans, whose daughter was at Forest Haven from 1967 until she died there in 1976, said it is "because of the continuing violation of the Constitutional rights of Forest Haven residents that we feel it imperative that (this bill) be enacted." Evans is currently suing the District concerning conditions at Forest Haven.
In addition to dealing with commitment and treatment procedures and education for mentally retarded persons, the 68-page bill would establish an Administration on Mental Retardation (AMR) and would revise zoning laws, allowing group homes, funded and operated by the District, to be built without regard to zoning restrictions.
Council Member Polly Shackleton, who chaired the hearing, said she believed the council would act only on the education and commitment and treatment procedures.
She said the zoning section probably would be deleted since Evans pointed out that the DCARC currently is working toward amendment of zoning laws; because of that, she said, it is likely that other legislation in this area will eventually be introduced.
Regarding establishment of the AMR, Shackleton said she was "not inclined to support the idea of setting up a special office." She said, based on the testimony at the hearing, this would only fragment services and would not benefit the mentally retarded.
Instead, she said, she hoped "there will be more emphasis on the program in the DHR," which currently administers programs for the mentally retarded.
Witnesses urged the council to consider several issues the bill fails to address. These witnesses stressed what they said are two major issues:
Greater emphasis should be placed on community based services. The bill should outline these services, make provisions for their establishment and operation and provide for the deinstitutionalization of the mentally retarded and their return into the community.
The bill should be more comprehensive, including all of the developmental disabilities: mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and autison.