In Harm's Way

Cerebral palsy left Jimmy Rodriguez unable to speak or control his limbs. The state allegedly left him with a series of molesters.

"He does not always follow through [being assertive] due to his fears that others may mistreat him if he confronts them with his problems," his psychologist wrote in 1997.

That same year, 1997, Rodriguez reluctantly agreed to take a muscle relaxant to make it easier for group home staffers to care for him. He hated the medicine, but he feared retribution if he refused. Whitney says it was then that she agreed to become his legal guardian. After conferring with Granado, whom the state would never allow to be Rodriguez's guardian, she says, she stepped in to protect a boy who couldn't protect himself.

After Whitney became Rodriguez's guardian, he sued the state, Full Care, DSI and Good Shepherd.

Glendale High teacher Dale Whitney became Rodriguez's legal guardian
Paolo Vescia
Glendale High teacher Dale Whitney became Rodriguez's legal guardian
"She is the best," Rodriguez says of Whitney
Paolo Vescia
"She is the best," Rodriguez says of Whitney

"The reason he finally had me see an attorney is because he wanted to stop this from happening to other kids who couldn't verbalize what [had] happened," says Whitney.

Neither the state nor the other parties ever admitted wrongdoing. The case was settled out of court in late 1999. Rodriguez cannot say how much money he got, because he agreed to keep the sum confidential. The state will not divulge the settlement amount because insurance carriers for the group homes settled with Rodriguez. The money was put in a special trust fund.

Whitney says Rodriguez does not have enough money to live independently for the rest of his life. This year, it will cost nearly $77,000 to feed, clothe and house him, according to DDD records. (Medicaid pays for approximately 65 percent of the costs. The state pays the remaining 35 percent.) Using these figures, Rodriguez would need at least $2.3 million to care for himself for 30 more years.

Because Rodriguez cannot afford to live independently, he remains in a state-licensed group home.

He continues to be one of more than 18,000 Arizonans with disabilities who rely on DDD for care. His caseworker, one of about 375 employed by DDD, has an overwhelming caseload of nearly 50 clients. Last year, the Arizona Legislature refused to fully fund DDD's request for more caseworkers.

The state itself pays only $56 million to fund the entire DDD agency; the federal government pays another $299 million in highly restricted Medicaid funds.

Caregivers remain notoriously underpaid, earning about $6.75 to $8 per hour. Turnover among caregivers is still high.

"If I could wish for one thing for my son," Yolanda Granado says, "it would be that he had good people to take care of him."

Ironically, Rodriguez would lose his benefits if he spent any of his settlement money on food, clothing or shelter. Given these restrictions, he spends hardly any money at all. He takes in an occasional touring Broadway musical at Gammage. He hopes eventually to buy a van so he won't be dependent on DDD contracted drivers, who frequently deliver him late to his appointments.

Rodriguez has ordered a new device that will coordinate his Liberator with a telephone.

And he wants to purchase a new electric wheelchair "that climbs stairs."

His wheelchair situation is a constant irritant. His electric wheelchair is frequently in the shop for months. His replacement manual wheelchair also is frequently in the shop for months. Often, he must spend his days in an uncomfortable substitute chair with no support for his thrashing limbs. Sometimes, his spasms cause him to hit the chair so much his skin rubs off.

"I am used to it," says Rodriguez.

Jimmy Rodriguez graduated from Glendale High last spring. (His gold graduation tassel still dangles from his wheelchair.) He still visits Dale Whitney's classroom, where a drawing of three sunflowers still adorns the wall. It took Rodriguez months to draw the sunflowers with a pencil attached to his headband. Like everything else in his life, the drawing took uncommon perseverance.He had always hoped to find a job, to be a productive citizen. But it took him a year to find work. Finally, through a private agency, he secured two jobs. On weekends he is a companion to elderly people and does their shopping -- with the help of an attendant. As soon as the Liberator-assisted answering machine he has ordered arrives, he will begin work at a dentist's office, advising patients over the phone of upcoming appointments. The job is firm, he says.

Until the device arrives, on weekdays Rodriguez has been temporarily warehoused by the state in a day program with severely mentally retarded people.

Yes, it is depressing, he acknowledges, "but I am used to it." In the afternoons, he assists the manager with her daily tally of expenses.

He says he must go to the day-care program because the state does not want "to pay for an attendant" that would enable him to lead a more normal existence. Still, he consoles himself with the thought that in a few short weeks he will have his telephone connection and will be working full-time.

Once he gets his job routine nailed down, he hopes to volunteer to teach people with cerebral palsy -- people who "despair" because they cannot communicate with others -- to use Liberators.

He visits his mother practically every weekend. He is frequently distressed by her problems, frustrated that there is "not much" he can do to help her.

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