Approximately 60 Friends of Forest Haven, most of them relatives of residents at the city-run institution for the mentally retarded, met last week to discuss the court order that one day will close the facility in Laurel and bring its 912 residents back into the District.

No closing date has been set for the facility, which is 22 miles from Washington, but experts expect the phase-out to take 10 years or more.The closing depends upon how long it will take to establish critically needed support services in the city, such as housing and health care.

Throughout the two-hour meeting at the Occupational Training Center of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens (DCARC), parents expressed doubts that counterpointed the optimism of city officials.

Many relatives of profoundly retarded children questioned whether their children could, or even should, leave the institution, despite poor treatment family members believe patients receive there.

Forest Haven has numerous problems, relatives said.These include occasional, unexplained bruises on patients' bodies, and administering of drugs that altered behavior and sometimes counteracted medicine prescribed for physical ailments, relatives said. Staff shortages and unsanitary conditions prevailed, clothes and radios were stolen, and public transportation to the facility was nonexistent, they added.

Chester Jones, the administrator at Forest Haven, admitted that these conditions have occurred, or may presently occur, at Forest Haven.

Despite the problems, some parents, like Bertha Atkin, president of the Friends of Forest Haven, said they are apprehensive about returning their children to the community.

"I want the best for the residents. If the residents are capable of living in the community and can make it with little assistance, fine. But I have to think again if they want to move the ones like my daughter," said Atkin, who said that her daughter is severely retarded.

If Forest Haven had "properly staffed, supervised program activities and proper transportation," said Atkin, "I feel (that remaining at Forest Haven would be better) for the very, very severely retarded."

Relatives said they feared "dumping" -- returning residents to the community with no supervision or program -- and programs that would either fail to provide adequate care or would start off well and later be stripped of funds. "All of this sounds so great for our mentally retarded relatives," said one woman, "but is that bubble going to burst so they won't support these programs?"

Charles Inlander, a developmental disabilities professional hired by the D.C. Department of Human Resources to outline and start a program for closing Forest Haven, assured parents at the meeting that"8the Pratt decree is an individualized program for every person in Forest Haven and for people who are not there." Inlander was referring to the decree handed down by D.C. Superior Court Judge John Pratt last June 14.

In part, the decree states that mentally retarded persons "have a federal constitutional right to habilitative care and treatment based upon the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment." These rights were violated at Forest Haven, Pratt said.

To prevent the city from relocating people to other institutions, the Pratt decree also stated that persons in need of skilled medical care cannot be confined in a structured, residential program housing more than 20 people. Persons without severe medical problems cannot be placed in a residential program housing more than eight people.

"The Pratt decree means a gradual phasing-out of Forest Haven," Inlander said. "If we can do it for one, we can do it for 1,000. But we have to do it right."

Inlander reports DHR progress on plans to the court every 90 days.

In response to misgivings expressed by some parents, Vincent Gray, executive director of DCARC, said, "You have to keep their (city officials') feet to the fire."

In the 27 years DCARC has operated in the city, the group has provided workshops, a residential program, and skilled training to the mentally retarded. The group's primary role, however, is to act as advocates for the mentally retarded, Gray said.

Last October, the City Council unanmiously passed the Mentally Retarded Citizens Act, which defines the rights of the mentally retarded, said Gray. The bill is now before Congress.

"Between them, the court order and the legislation present powerful leverage," Gray said.

DCARC has also lobbied for the creation of a mental retardation and developmental disabilities administration that is separate from the city mental health administration.

Although mentally retarded people can also be mentally ill, Gray said the two problems are totally unrelated and require different, specialized programs.

Before residents are moved into the city, a series of plans including evaluation of residents, community staff, a community advisory board, and the interim operation of Forest Haven are to be developed, officials said. More than 30 people, who already have been evaluated, now live in group homes and foster homes in the metropolitan area.

At the meeting, DHR officials described a variety of living situations that will be available. Group homes, shared apartments and other living arrangements that reflect individual abilities and training will be designed to meet each person's needs, officials said. Relatives, along with the resident, if he or she is capable, also can participate in planning individual living arrangements.

Profoundly retarded persons requiring round-the-clock attention can be placed in supervised homes that house three to 10 people and provide skilled nursing care.

Harold Evans, the chief plaintiff in the action that resulted in the Pratt decree, said the suit was filed because "after fighting the institution 12 years, we were convinced that no matter how many dollars you put in Forest Haven, it would still be an institution."

Still, most of the parents of severely retarded children at the meeting said they feared the closing plan.

"I love to see people who love to do a good job," said the mother of a 27-year-old mongoloid child. "But I'm fearful there's a lot of motion and not necessarily improvement."