HOMES OF ILL REPUTE

IF YOU'RE MENTALLY RETARDED AND LIVING IN ARIZONA, BEWARE. THIS STATE IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.

The contents of the letter left George Coppock trembling with fear and anger. "We have received a report that Michael has possibly been abused," the curt note from the Arizona Department of Economic Security started.

Coppock recalls feeling helpless when he read those words three years ago.
"Here you are up in Tempe, miles away from your son, not knowing what's really going on," he says. "It was a very bad thing to have to think about."

Mike suffers from Down's syndrome. He has been living in institutions and group homes for the mentally retarded since he was nine. Now 29, Mike has the mind of a five-year-old, according to psychological reports. But he can communicate on a basic level. That was how the staff at the privately run group home found out what happened the night of March 19, 1987. Speaking in "Down-ese"--a mix of sign and verbal language common to those who suffer from the congenital condition--Mike told a trusted group-home worker the awful thing that had been done to him the previous evening.

Mike described how Danny Britton, a worker at the Cholla group home, had tried to rape him. Mike rarely makes things up, so the staffer he had confided in immediately told her supervisors.

Casa Grande police learned of Mike's allegations within a day of the incident. But neither Casa Grande police detectives nor officers from the state's Office of Special Investigations treated the allegations with anything approaching urgency.

Casa Grande police reports indicate detectives decided to wait until Britton returned to work before they questioned him. They didn't change their minds, even after Britton called in sick and didn't show up at the Cholla home for a week.

When Detective Bill Lebbs finally sat Britton down for a chat, the talkative 25-year-old confessed. But Britton said he had stopped his assault: "I put my penis up against his buttocks . . . That's when Michael got upset and scared and he went on to his room."

"It's just curiosity," Britton said of his actions. "They say curiosity kills a cat. But as far as penetration goes, there was never no penetration."

It took George Coppock months to piece together what had happened to his son. For starters, Coppock learned that Danny Britton had a 1982 felony conviction for trafficking in stolen property. The people who run the private group home say they hadn't known that when they'd hired him in 1986. That's because the firm hadn't sent a copy of Britton's fingerprints to the state for the background criminal check required under Arizona law.

Coppock also learned that the state hadn't relayed its bad news to him until four days after Britton had tried to sodomize Mike. And then they did it by mail.

"I got no cooperation from the state or from anyone," George Coppock says. "Maybe because there was no penetration, everything wasn't so serious. The state put up a new barrier every time I tried to find something out."

Mike Coppock's sad case illustrates the failures of a system designed to protect citizens who are among Arizona's most defenseless.

Mike was living in a group home run by AIRES--Arizona Integrated Residential and Educational Services. The firm is one of about thirty privately owned companies that contract with the state to operate 270 community-based homes for developmentally disabled people.

On paper, the group-home concept is more humane than Arizona's former practice of warehousing the mentally retarded in out-of-sight/out-of-mind institutions. Group homes in Arizona house up to six people; residents are given more individual attention and have contact with mainstream society. But there are problems. Mike's case, unfortunately, wasn't a fluke.

In April 1988, a staffer at the Cholla group home in Casa Grande accidentally left a 64-year-old mentally retarded man in a hot van for several hours. W.A. Scott died of hyperthermia--excessive body temperature.

Then there's Rose Marie Raymond, a 24-year-old mentally retarded woman impregnated late last year, possibly by a worker at her group home. Casa Grande police reports depict a halfhearted investigation that prosecutors declined to pursue. The suspected staffer has moved out of state.

Rose is due to give birth any day. Her attorney says she and her newborn will move into a Casa Grande foster home if all goes well. Mike Brune describes his client as a "high-functioning retarded" woman with an IQ in the sixties.

Incidents such as these are what keep developmental disabilities advocate Doug Bacon in business. "We've set ourselves up to fail in Arizona," says Bacon, executive director of District Five's Advisory Council on Developmental Disabilities, a federally mandated advocacy office. (The district encompasses rural Pinal and Gila Counties.) "The turnover of group-home staff is high, the pay is low, and we don't check up properly on the worker's backgrounds. You do come up with a lot of good people who aren't motivated by money, but you shouldn't have to count on the luck of the draw." Some 10,000 Arizonans fall under state and federal definitions of "developmentally disabled." It doesn't promise to get much better soon for the 2,000 of them who live in state- or privately operated group homes or institutions. For one thing, the state of Arizona is now responsible for twice as many developmentally disabled people as it was in 1982. That is telling, because the state agency that oversees the mentally retarded population--the Developmental Disabilities Division--has the same number of employees now as it did eight years ago.

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