The state and your children

The latest news item regarding the state and your children comes from Texas remains unsettled. Despite the best of intention, the state and its representatives, whether social workers or doctors, should think of their own fallibility before they act. Withness this story from the WSJ.
Mrs. West found a new physician who examined Richard and concluded he was severely mentally retarded. The physician explained that Richard might learn to walk but would never talk. He would always have the mentality of a three-year-old and need 24-hour care. "It was a relief knowing it wasn't my imagination" or fault, says Mrs. West.

Soon pregnant again, Mrs. West became overwhelmed at the thought of caring for a newborn and a mentally disabled toddler, along with four older kids. The community offered no programs to help Richard. Having come from North Dakota, the Wests had no family nearby. "I didn't know what to do," says Mrs. West.

She asked her doctor. Gently, he told Mrs. West it would be better for Richard and everyone else if he was institutionalized. "You have to think of the other kids," she remembers the physician telling her.

* * * * *

None of the children pressed their parents to find out how Richard was doing, although privately they wondered. "Anytime the family was together at Christmas or Thanksgiving, I would think how we used to play around him on the floor," says his older brother Bob.

In the 1980s, the state informed the Wests that Richard was being moved a couple hundred miles east to another state facility. A few years later, the Wests received a letter saying Richard was being placed in a smaller residence. The letter didn't say where. The Wests felt they lacked standing to ask because their son was a ward of the state.

He had, in fact, been transferred to a group home in Baker City, about 300 miles away. There, workers wondered about Richard's family. "Do they know he exists? Do they care?" says caregiver Tracy Hylton. "Many families don't want to have contact, and when there isn't any contact, we have to assume that is the case."

The turning point came the evening that Jeff West saw the television interview with Mr. Daly, the Oregon man who had found his long-lost mentally disabled sister. Suddenly, Jeff West was struck with the desire to find Richard.

Other siblings, however, were apprehensive. "Do you really want to do that?" brother Larry remembers saying. "Are you going to bring up things that are hurtful?"

Debby Peery, the second-youngest, wondered what their responsibility might be and how others would react.

"I was a little nervous about what the caretakers would think of us suddenly showing up after 40 years," she says. "But I was also excited."

All worried about their parents. "I didn't know how much guilt they carried," says Jeff West. At that point, Jeff didn't know his parents had recently and unsuccessfully tried to find Richard so that he could receive Mr. West's pension.

When asked about tracking down his disabled son, the elderly Mr. West responded, "Go for it."

* * * * *

Weeks later, the family met with Richard for the first time in 40 years. His caregivers, Ms. Hylton and Carrie Baird, drove Richard to the home of a sibling. They worried whether the West family would take Richard away from his group home, where he was comfortable and loved. "It would have been hard for us if he left," says Ms. Hylton.

* * * * *

Over lunch and through the afternoon, the Wests listened to Ms. Hylton and Ms. Baird describe how Richard loves music, does his own laundry, washes dishes, mows the lawn and sets the table. He has a job refilling ink cartridges. And a girlfriend: On dates to McDonalds they eat apple pie. Always known to his family as Ricky, he now preferred to be called Richard.

* * * * *

At Fairview, Richard learned things his parents never thought possible. By 12, he could dress, feed himself, catch a ball, fold pajamas and fish. He had friends and foster grandparents who took him out for ice cream. At 16, Richard taught himself to whistle. He loved Volkswagens and was sometimes found sitting in one in the Fairview parking lot.

* * * * *

Mrs. West sends Richard towels and sweatshirts embroidered with his name. When getting dressed in the morning, Richard selects the same shirts repeatedly -- the ones his mother sent. "He knows it came from his family, and it means something," says Ms. Hylton.

Parents, never give up your children to the state without a fight!

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