By Spencer Hunt and Debra Jasper
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS -- Monique Shafer has seen a mentally retarded man left in zero-degree weather until his fingers swelled with frostbite.
She's seen a retarded woman left in her own urine so long her skin peeled off when her stockings were removed.
The Columbus police detective has seen case after case where workers hired to watch over the mentally retarded instead abused or neglected them.
Most of the time, she says, no one is punished.
''A lot of these cases are solvable,'' Detective Shafer says. But prosecutors ''get into a routine of handling drug cases, domestic violence, things like that so when something comes up that's different, they're not up for the challenge.''
Detective Shafer's insight into crimes against the mentally retarded is rare. She is the only officer in any of Ohio's six major cities or counties assigned to investigate such crimes full time.
Such knowledge is critical in a system that's increasingly providing more government care to people living at home instead of institutions, says Sharon Schertz, head of a Franklin County Board of Mental Retardation unit that investigates abuse cases.
''We have a lot more people in residential settings, so there are more opportunities for financial exploitation, abuse and neglect,'' she says.
Her unit refers about 1,000 cases of abuse, neglect, thefts and other suspected crimes to Columbus police each year. Ms. Schertz says Detective Shafer's experience with the system makes all the difference.
''She knows how to interview people who are developmentally disabled, and she knows what's needed in court,'' Ms. Schertz says.
Detective Shafer, of the juvenile bureau, says cases involving the mentally retarded require patience and special skills. She uses dolls to help non-verbal victims describe sexual abuse, and she doesn't use big words during interviews.
''I taught myself how to do this. There's no training offered for this job,'' she says. ''It's kind of, I don't want to say sink or swim, but you'd better know how to use your head.''
The detective says one of her biggest challenges is getting information quickly enough to act. Despite a state law requiring caregivers to report abuse immediately, Detective Shafer says they often wait days or even weeks.
By then it can be too late.
''It just torques us because if they wait a week, the mentally retarded person can forget'' key details, she says.
Detective Shafer has investigated dozens of cases that show the difficulties in prosecuting people suspected of abuse or neglect.
Take the case of Gary Anderson.
Herbert Anderson knew something was wrong on a hot August day in 2000 when his 44-year-old son Gary's school bus brought him home from a county workshop.
Gary, who is severely mentally retarded and has cerebral palsy, typically has a high tolerance for pain and can't speak. But when he was lowered off the bus in his wheelchair, ''his elbow was swelled up and he was screaming really loud,'' Mr. Anderson recalls.
Mr. Anderson was told that Gary's right arm had been crushed when his wheelchair tipped over on the bus, even though the chair was supposed to be securely locked in. Mr. Anderson raced his son to the hospital, where Gary spent seven hours in surgery and emerged with pins and screws in an arm he could no longer use.
For Gary, who had relied completely on his right arm to propel himself, the injury changed everything.
''He used to crawl around the house, but he can't do that anymore,'' Mr. Anderson says. ''Now he's got to wait on me to push him in his wheelchair. He gets really frustrated.''
Limited to a wheelchair, Gary has put on 25 pounds in the past year and a half. Pointing to a new electrical lift in Gary's small bedroom, Mr. Anderson says he needs it to get his son into his bed.
''I'm 75 years old, and I just can't lift him anymore,'' he says.
Detective Shafer charged the driver, Terry Kellenberger, 55, with patient neglect, a first-degree misdemeanor, for failing to safely secure the wheelchair on Aug. 4, 2000.
Over the next year and a half, Mr. Anderson and his wife, Juanita, say they went to court four times to testify. Each time, the trial was postponed.
In the end, Mr. Kellenberger was convicted of disorderly conduct, a fourth-degree misdemeanor, fined $150 and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The jail time was suspended.
Mr. Kellenberger says he still drives a bus for the mentally retarded. He says a hearing showed that straps on the bus had come loose with other drivers, too. ''The floor was warped,'' he says. ''I didn't do anything wrong.''
Despite the outcome, the Andersons are grateful the case wasn't dismissed.
''Monique really worked hard at this case,'' Mrs. Anderson says, standing in her living and room and showing the detective how Gary's scars are finally healing. ''I can't tell you how many times she went down and looked that bus over. I don't think we would have gotten anywhere without her.''
Without testimony from Gary, who can't talk, the case could have gone either way, says Stephen McIntosh, a Columbus city prosecutor.
''The Kellenberger case gives you a good idea of the problems we face,'' he says. ''You have an injury, but without a victim to testify the case is purely circumstantial.''
Detective Shafer worked another case where a severely mentally retarded resident of a Columbus group home was left outside without gloves for about half an hour on a day in which temperatures fell below zero. He suffered severe frostbite.
A 24-year-old worker was found guilty of patient abuse on July 15, 1997, and could have faced up to six months in jail. However, the case was dismissed after a psychological exam showed that she might not understand all the legal issues.
''Just because she had a low IQ doesn't mean she wasn't responsible, but they just dropped it,'' Detective Shafer says.
The worker ''had the mentality of an 8- to 9-year-old child,'' Mr. McIntosh says. ''There's no benefit to prosecuting someone who doesn't understand what they did wrong.''
He says the case raises bigger questions about the responsibility of nursing homes and group homes to hire competent workers.
''Every case is an education into the requirements of the caregivers and the people hired to supervise them,'' Mr. McIntosh says. ''We need much more training on standards of care.''
Detective Shafer, who is being considered for a spot on a new governor's task force seeking ways to step up prosecutions, plans to lobby for a new law that would make it a crime to endanger mentally retarded adults.
The law, she says, should be modeled after Ohio's child endangering law, which makes it a crime to neglect a child even if there is no permanent injury.
She cites the time a mentally retarded woman was left sitting in her own urine and excrement so long that her stockings stuck to sores on her legs. When she was finally taken to a doctor, her condition was so bad her skin peeled off when her stockings were removed.
''I mean, this lady was close to getting gangrene, and you have to ask, 'What was the staff who were supposed to take care of her doing?' '' Detective Shafer says.
''A lot of these caregivers, I'd like to slap a citation on them. In a short time, that could really make a difference. But in so many of these really sad cases, all you can do is say, 'Naughty, naughty.' ''