Arc clients strive for independence But officials caution the mentally disabled remain vulnerable

March 10, 1998|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly reported the name of the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens.

The Sun regrets the error.

Living in a house decorated with bowling trophies and floral prints, 45-year-old Sharon Miller has a fully stocked kitchen, but doesn't use the stove.

Miller has Down Syndrome, and her part-time caretaker is afraid Miller will burn herself. For 28 years, Miller has been cared for by the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, now in monitored apartment in Parkville. She loves her caretaker -- and her independence.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The 12 nonprofit Arc organizations of Maryland serve hundreds of mentally disabled people and are committed to helping them fit into society. There are Arc groups in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties.

Critics and advocates agree that independence can also make Arc clients vulnerable -- as shown by a string of thefts from clients at The Arc of Howard County.

State regulators are investigating the Howard agency after The Sun reported last week that in the past four years, 13 clients have been victimized by thefts -- most committed by Arc employees. State officials are also investigating allegations that additional money may be missing.

That controversy does not matter to Miller. She wants to talk about how she enjoys living her life just like anybody else.

"I'd rather be more independent," she said.

Every day that Miller goes to work as a janitor at the BARC (Baltimore Area for Retarded Children) main office near Towson, she wakes up at 5 a.m., makes herself breakfast and climbs on a bus.

Like many BARC clients, Miller lived at home and traveled to day programs at BARC until family members could no longer care for her. Now she shares an apartment.

A caretaker comes several times a week to help Miller and her roommate shop for groceries, learn to cook and go out to eat.

Miller loves to talk about her boyfriend, Robert, whom she met in high school. She recites her activities as if each week promises new fun.

At BARC, there are singing classes and exercise classes, and twice-monthly dances. She bowls every Saturday morning.

Arc has 140,000 members nationwide and 1,100 chapters across the country. The organization was started more than 50 years ago by parents concerned about the lack of services, such as public education, for their children.

BARC started in 1949 as nine centers for children -- essentially mini-schools. Now BARC is the largest nonprofit provider for the mentally handicapped in the state, said Stephen H. Morgan, the organization's executive director. The agency provides services to about 2,000 Baltimore and Baltimore County residents in job, recreation and residential programs.

There are adult day care centers for the severely disabled, staffed by a nurse, centers where clients work on developmental and social skills, and sheltered workshops where clients stuff mail or package goods.

BARC officials are trying to move as many people as possible into mainstream jobs in the community and have contracts like the one at Towson University's cafeteria, where Preston Perkins, 36, works.

As Perkins loads trays into an industrial dishwasher, he talks eagerly about a vacation he plans to take with the money he is earning, about his love of running and of music.

"When I work hard, I can make lots of money," Perkins said.

There is a BARC job coach on hand to help Perkins and the approximately 12 other BARC workers.

Jerry Bullinger, BARC's director of employment services, smiles as he recalls how he saw the self-esteem of one man soar after starting work at the university. One day, Bullinger saw him with legs propped up on a table reading a newspaper next to a group of students.

The only difference was the newspaper was upside down -- the man could not read.

No matter, Bullinger says. "He was just one of the gang."

But the independence that Miller and Perkins enjoy must be balanced with safeguards to protect them and others like them, said Diane Coughlin, director of the state Developmental Disabilities Administration, which funds Maryland's Arc and other organizations for the developmentally disabled.

The mentally disabled "deserve the opportunity to experience life as people without disabilities do," Coughlin said. "It's a balancing act, because we want to afford people with disabilities" the same freedoms that people without disabilities have but also minimize the risk, she said.

Critics say the independence philosophy can go too far. Clients -- and house counselors -- at Howard's Arc have lacked supervision, said Ted Geppert, a former Howard Arc board member who has a mentally disabled daughter.

Geppert pointed to personal bank accounts held by several Howard Arc clients in the residential care program as a sign of independence gone awry.

Clients who could barely sign their own names had their own checkbooks, and house counselors had almost direct access to the accounts.

The thefts reported by The Sun stemmed from such bank accounts, which were not regularly monitored by Howard Arc officials until recently. Arc officials say they have reduced the number of outside accounts and have tightened monitoring.

Independence "is a worthy goal, but the reality is, when you try to let them do everything on their own, they get in trouble or people take advantage of them," Geppert said. "They're vulnerable adults, which some of the providers forget."

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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