Sunday, December 8, 2002

Protecting the retarded

Irene's tale shows need for change


Irene Becknell, 53, has the mind of a 5-year-old. The most important things in her life are her Mickey Mouse blanket, her dolls, Three Stooges videos and her family.

She's precocious. She doesn't like strangers touching her and peppers her abbreviated conversations with hair-curling expletives. She can sometimes be aggressive, pinching, kicking or spitting, but most times she's cheerful and sweet if you approach her the right way.

Irene is severely retarded and suffers from a seizure disorder. Most of her life she lived with her mother and feared the outside world.

But last spring, life changed. Her mother went into the hospital for surgery, and Irene's siblings placed her in a group home in Cincinnati.

The modest, neat-as-a-pin house was brightly painted, as close to home as Irene could get, recalled Kathy Thacker, Irene's sister-in-law.

In the six months Irene lived there, she lost 60 pounds. Had she stayed longer, her family believes, she could have died.

Someone's statistic

The family videos tell the story.

On the day Irene moved in, the 5-foot woman weighed about 127 pounds. She was talkative, cheerful, interacting with family members but shy with the home's residents. She clung to her Mickey blanket, magazines and dolls.

Six months later - after a social worker carried her limp frame out of the home Oct. 11 - Irene looked emaciated. She lay listless and bruised on her brother's couch. She seemed too weak to hold her head up, to hold her drinking cup or a spoon.

She was quiet, nearly motionless, docile. No laughter, no chatter, no swearing. There were bruises, scrapes and a bleeding bed sore on her legs, an old cut on her face. Irene weighed only 60 pounds.

Group home workers told the family Irene often fell.

"She couldn't walk, stand upright, eat. She was overdosed on drugs," said Mrs. Thacker, a program coordinator at an area hospital.

"All we received from the home was, `She ate three meals a day and was doing fine.' If we wouldn't have taken her out of that home, she probably would be in someone's statistics of avoidable or unexplained deaths."

Irene's family, social workers and doctors aren't sure what happened to Irene. But they suspect several things: Irene was neglected, she was heavily drugged, and her family members were lied to about the care she received.

A psychiatrist wrote in notes on Irene's last day at the home: "Irene is in terribly bad physical shape." She listed with exclamation points the dosage of Irene's medications, noting one was the highest she'd ever seen.

Since then, Irene's family has put her in a larger facility in Batavia. Irene now weighs 85 pounds. She's made friends and handed out formerly rare hugs and kisses to staff and residents. She ventures outside and talks more.

She's lucky. Dozens of mentally retarded people have died of abuse, neglect or other avoidable causes in group homes throughout Ohio, the Enquirer found in a special report.

New rules

Ohio lawmakers are ushering through a bill to strengthen state regulation of group homes. No longer will homes have lifetime operating licenses. Instead they'll need to meet standards to receive permits every one to three years.

The new law also mandates tougher inspections and allows the state to publicize group homes' conditions.

Gov. Bob Taft is expected to sign the measure into law.

That's encouraging, Mrs. Thacker says, but would any of these new rules have kept Irene safe? Much more needs to be done, she says, to protect these innocents.

E-mail or phone 768-8395.

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