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In Utah's mentally handicapped community, it was a little like firing on Fort Sumter.

The Arc of Utah Saturday called for the closure of the Developmental Center in American Fork, which houses more than 350 people with severe mental disabilities.These people must be returned to the community, announced Jeanette Drews, president of The Arc (Advocates for the Rights of Citizens with Mental Retardation). She called for the center's closure during the group's annual meeting Saturday at the Riverboat.

The group's declaration will be seen as an act of war by those fearful of change, she warned. "We must hold our ground. State our case and stand firm. . . . Please don't let anything steer you down a hysterical path."

The center (formerly the American Fork Training School) is the subject of an increasingly heated debate. The March 22 death of Karalynn Montgomery, one of the center's residents, prompted Arc's call for closure.

Montgomery, 50, was blind and severely retarded. She wandered outside on a snowy night, couldn't get back in and wasn't missed until morning, Drews said. She died of hypothermia during the night.

"I feel Karalynn was a victim of neglect," Drews said in an interview after her announcement. The mentally disabled also die when they live in the community, she acknowledged. "They meet with misfortune. But it's never through neglect. It's maybe through accident or happenstance."

The Arc observed a moment of silence for Montgomery's death during its meeting.

"There have been deaths in community placement," said Claudia Miles, a member of the Mental Retardation Association of Utah whose son Adam has been at the Developmental Center for more than a decade. "But using them to break down the goodness that has been done in the community would be just as bad. There are tragedies everywhere where human beings are interfacing with other human beings. It was tragic. It wasn't some kind of premeditated evil. Neither are deaths in the community."

Groups like The Arc believe institutions are never appropriate placements for people with disabilities. Others, such as the MRAU, believe that while institutional life is not for everyone, parents and families have a right to choose them if they believe it would be best for their relatives.

In 1989, The Arc of Utah and the Legal Center for People with Disabilities sued Utah because residents at the center were not receiving appropriate treatment and training "in the least restrictive and most enabling en-vi-ron-ment."

The case, called "Lisa P.," was settled in 1993. As part of the agreement, every resident will be thoroughly assessed to determine whether the most appropriate placement is in the community or at the center. The Arc and the Legal Center agreed in the settlement that the center may be the most appropriate placement for some.

"They owe a lot of us a big apology. This is in violation of their agreement to the Lisa P. settlement," Miles said. "It said there was a place for the Developmental Center for those who were evaluated as needing it or who by choice of self or guardian wanted it. They have violated even the trust in the agreement of the lawsuit."

The Arc's call for closure is not violating that agreement "in any way, shape or form," Drews said. The state had agreed to seek community placement whenever possible, with an aim to decreasing the center's size. Now state officials are saying the center will never be closed, Drews said. "That's breaking faith" with the agreement, she said.

Cost is a factor in the group's push for closure, Bev Adcock, executive director of The Arc, said Friday during a telephone interview. Community placement in general is "significantly less," she said, than the Developmental Center.

The cost of support services when a child stays at home with family is the least expensive. Community placements vary depending on the severity of the clients' needs.

James Hunter's daughter has lived at the center for 45 years. Leaving, he said, "`would devastate her. She doesn't like change. When we take her out on a Sunday and take her back, she's through with us. That's her home and she's always glad to get back there.

"I wouldn't want her served in the community. It does not offer her the same service that she gets down there and as they reduce the population at the (developmental) center they reduce the staff," he said. "To close down (the center) would be the worst serving for handicapped that would happen in this state."

The inspiration for the outmovement has come from adults who used to live in the Developmental Center, Adcock said. "When you hear them talk about what it was like, compared to what it is now. All the things we want are what they want. (In the community) they get to decide when to get up, when to go to bed, what to have for lunch. Institutions and regulations stifle choice, however well-intended."

Hunter, on the other hand, talks of "quite a few who have been outserved and are not happy in the community. It (the center) is a necessary facility.

"Why move her (his daughter) out when I'm perfectly happy where she is and she's very happy there? That's a very selfish thing for them to do in my humble opinion."

The suggestion that no one be forced into an institution is "not good enough," Adcock said.

"We believe if a choice for someone is bad and we believe with all our hearts this is bad, as long as the choice is there people are going to be stuck. The only way to change that is for it to no longer exist. We must provide supports in the community. And we believe parental choice should not outweigh the best choice for someone."

Calling for closure and getting it are two different things, Drews acknowledged. The Arc of Utah only has 500 members. "We have no power to close it. That's a governmental decision," she said. "But we must be the moral agents who say there must no longer be an institution for anybody."