How to raise Down child at heart of parents' suit Medical malpractice case heard in Howard court

October 22, 1997|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Attorneys in a Howard County courtroom are battling over a question that medical and educational professionals wrestle with: how best to rear a mentally impaired child.

The issue is central to a medical malpractice lawsuit filed by the Hagerstown parents of a 3-year-old child with Down syndrome who are asking that a doctor and a Columbia medical practice pay the costs of raising the boy. Joyce and Dan Shull, former Savage residents, allege they were never told she faced a high risk of having a child with the genetic defect and would have aborted the fetus had they known.

They want their son to go to private schools for as long as he can, then receive special tutoring and treatment and live in a private group home after he graduates. The public school system will not give him all he needs, they have argued in the trial that continues today in Howard Circuit Court.

Attorneys for Dr. Swati Saraiya and Woman to Woman Health Care disagree. They say current medical theory recommends that Down syndrome children be educated along with the rest of society -- called "mainstreaming" -- not shuttled away to a private school. The doctor and medical practice also say Mrs. Shull was informed of the risk she faced.

The Shulls say their plan for the boy, Elliott, will cost at least $2 million. The defense says that public funding allotted for programs for disabled children means raising Elliott should not cost the Shulls a penny.

Both sides have enlisted experts to tell the jury what they think is the best way for a child like Elliott to live his life.

Last week, Raphael Minsky, a rehabilitative psychologist from Bethesda, testified for the Shulls. He told the jurors that children with Down syndrome have a very difficult time if they are educated with normal children. They are teased and ostracized, he said.

"Other children pick on Down syndrome children. They make fun of them. They call them 'tards,' " Minsky testified.

Testing done last spring showed that Elliott, who is almost 4, was about 19 months behind other children in his development and learning skills, according to the Shulls. Minsky dismissed the theory of "mainstreaming" as one that has not worked well in reality.

"Mainstreaming has had very mixed success," Minsky testified. "The teachers complain they aren't trained."

Yesterday, Dr. Allen Crocker, a developmental pediatrician from Boston who has worked with Down syndrome children for many years, gave a different view. He described Minsky's suggestions as "bizarre" and "absurd."

Elliott needs to "feel he is a member of society," Crocker said.

Crocker said children such as Elliott used to be sent to private institutions, but such thoughts are outdated. Society as a whole is more accepting of youths with disabilities, he said. "It won't always be easy but that doesn't mean it's not doable," Crocker said.

Minsky -- the Shulls' expert -- recommended that Elliott be educated at The Ivymount School in Rockville, a private school for children with disabilities that charges annual tuition of $22,600. After Elliott would finish at Ivymount and enter public high school, Minsky said, he would need a private tutor.

The family also will need a trained aide to go to the house every day to help Elliott and give the family a break from the stresses of raising a disabled child, Minsky said.

Defense attorney Mary Alane Downs, who represents Saraiya and Woman to Woman Health Care, asked: "So [the home aide] is basically so that the mother does not have to deal with the child she did not want?"

Minsky denied that, responding: "There is a very big difference in parenting a disabled child than parenting a normal child. I've never heard a parent tell me they have been blessed."

Pub Date: 10/22/97

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