HOMES OF ILL REPUTE

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

MIKE COPPOCK is taking his noon lunch break. He's an outgoing fellow who is everyone's friend. He and his co-workers are mentally retarded, but hold down supervised jobs around Casa Grande. Mike often washes city police cars.

George and Lucille Coppock institutionalized their son in 1970, when the boy was nine. The fifth oldest of seven children (he has a twin sister), Mike was just too much for the Coppocks to handle.

"The world was his playground," says George Coppock, a semiretired mineral processing engineer. "Mike would get out of the house and do anything he wanted--sit in the street, bother the neighbors. He was friendly, but it was getting dangerous. I was on the road a lot working and my wife had to watch him every minute. We had to do something."

The couple chose the only option Arizonans with mentally retarded kids had in those days: They put him in the Children's Colony at Coolidge. The place was a horror show. It wasn't that the children were beaten or starved--except for affection. It's that they were warehoused in dank, depressing, overcrowded conditions.

Built in 1952 for 350 residents, by 1969 the Colony held 1,200 retarded and handicapped people.

"It was a very disheartening environment," George Coppock recalls. "People sitting around on floors in empty rooms with football helmets on. It was bad, but we didn't have an alternative at the time."

Advocate Doug Bacon of the Advisory Council on Developmental Disabilities has a keen historical perspective: "Human services in Arizona are about twenty years behind the times. For mentally retarded, developmentally disabled people, they were about fifty years behind the times before the lawsuit."

The suit he refers to is a landmark 1976 federal case accusing Arizona and its former Bureau of Mental Retardation of neglecting the basic needs of the developmentally disabled. The case forced the state to rethink its long-held notion that large institutions were the only way to go.

In the early 1970s, the state had established institutions for the mentally retarded at Phoenix and Tucson. The Phoenix institution closed in August 1988; about eighty residents live at the Tucson facility. Only about 250 still live at the original institution in Coolidge.)

Though Pinal County residents balked at deinstitutionalization--the Coolidge operation had long been a cash cow--federal Judge Carl Muecke forced the issue. The concept of group homes and family-based care soon caught on in Arizona, for a couple of reasons.

Arizonans traditionally bristle at "government intervention" of any sort. And bad publicity in the late 1970s about the state's inhumane, cost-inefficient institution at Coolidge didn't sit well with the public--or the legislature.

And, Arizona's legislators learned something important about group homes: It costs far less to house someone at a private group home than at a state-run institution. What those private firms pay their employees is mostly up to them--hence, the current average of just $4.50 an hour to front-line staffers. No state wages, no state benefits to worry about.

W.A. SCOTT LIVED almost all his sixty-something years at institutions for the mentally retarded in Coolidge and Phoenix.

"I think his mother died and a family member dropped him off in Coolidge as an infant," says Gayle Howell, who was a program supervisor for AIRES at W.A.'s Casa Grande group home for a year in 1987-88. W.A. lived in the same home as Mike Coppock.

"He was institutionalized at the big places for his whole life until right near the end," Howell says. "Then they put him in a little group home and he died. Ironic."

Howell, who now works in Bisbee with severely mentally ill people, has warm memories of W.A., a mentally retarded black man.

"I loved him to death," she says. "He was like one of my kids, cute as could be. He was nonverbal. I remember how he used to wake up before the rest of the boys and come into the kitchen. He'd hug me, and he'd sneak a little piece of bacon. I'd pretend I didn't see him doing it."

Howell went to work for AIRES in 1987, shortly after Danny Britton tried to rape Mike Coppock at the Cholla home. She says it was more than a job to her.

"We took the guys on vacation to the Grand Canyon, to Flagstaff, to Sedona," she recalls. "For some of them, it was the only vacation they'd ever had."

Howell left AIRES and the Cholla group home in early April 1988. About two weeks later, on the afternoon of April 19, a friend phoned her.

"She said something scary was going on at the AIRES home and I drove right over there," Howell recalls. "I got there before the police. Someone told me W.A. was dead in the van. I got very upset, to put it mildly."

Mike Glaser was the first Casa Grande detective on the scene. Ignoring the conflict of interest, Glaser first interviewed his wife Jan--an AIRES employee. What the detective eventually sorted out was this:

A driver from another area group home would normally take W.A. and others to work at the Casa Grande Work Activity Center in the mornings. But on the morning in question, Arvie Jones did the driving when the regular driver was busy with something else. Jones dropped off several group-home residents at their jobs, then drove another resident to nearby Coolidge.

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