HOMES OF ILL REPUTE
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.
The state is also lagging in other critical areas. That's because of miserly budget appropriations by the State Legislature and a sluggish government bureaucracy that places a premium on paperwork rather than serving an extremely vulnerable population.
The result is a veritable minefield of troubles:
* Turnover. Most group-home staff members don't last long on the job. "Their lack of pay is this state's biggest problem," says Barb Ficker of the Association of Retarded Citizens, a national advocacy organization. Arizona's group-home operators pay employees who work directly with retarded residents an average of $4.50 an hour. For most, it's not worth it after a while.
* Licensing. Arizona is woefully deficient in its licensing and monitoring of group homes. Just four state workers have been responsible for the annual inspection of Arizona's 270 privately run group homes. This personnel shortage has forced the state to issue "provisional" licenses to more than half of Arizona's private group homes. That's because no one from the state's licensing unit has inspected the homes within a year as mandated by law. Twelve of the 21 group homes operated in Arizona by AIRES have "provisional" licenses.
* Inspections. None of the 53 state-run group homes has been inspected by the licensing unit since the Arizona Legislature created it in 1987. The state last week committed to inspecting all of its group homes by September. But advocates wonder how thorough those inspections will be.
* Paperwork. Too much time goes to filling out forms. Each mentally retarded person who lives in a group home has a state case manager, who is supposed to ensure the homes are providing a decent quality of life. Case management, according to a 1989 report issued by Arizona's Systems Safeguard Committee, "is a critical safeguard for persons with disabilities." However, the committee--made up of state employees, parents of mentally retarded people and advocates--concluded, "Case managers are currently spending more time doing paperwork . . . than with persons served."
* Fingerprinting. The state's fingerprinting law--designed in part to ferret out prospective group-home employees with criminal backgrounds--isn't doing its job. Although in-state checks can be done in two weeks, it takes the FBI about six months to return the results of its nationwide criminal checks on social-services applicants, says DDD program administrator David Lara. By that time, many group-home employees have come and gone. "Arizona has such a transient population that this is a potentially dangerous thing," he says.
* Investigations. Police departments often give short shrift to criminal investigations involving developmentally disabled victims. And the state Department of Economic Security investigating team is frequently more concerned with the state's legal liability than in solving cases.
* Inadequate recordkeeping. In a one-year period that ended June 30, group homes around Arizona reported 1,718 "unusual incidents" to state authorities. The state defines an "unusual incident" as "an occurrence that involves death, serious personal injury, or property damage . . . " The state determined that 640 of those cases merited investigation. That included 48 cases of alleged physical abuse and seventeen cases of alleged sexual abuse by staff against group-home residents. But Lara says his agency does not have the outcome of the investigations on its computers.
"You have to go through each file case by case to get that," Lara says.
* Federal requirements. On December 19, 1988, Arizona signed onto a $45 million-a-year federal Medicaid program for long-term care of the developmentally disabled. The money has been a godsend, but with it came a weighty set of new rules and regulations atop the $140 million-a-year bureaucracy already in place. The state doesn't have the manpower to meet the requirements.
"We're dying under the weight of all this," says state Developmental Disabilities Division chief Lyn Rucker. "I'm tremendously concerned how we can have an adequate safety net out there when our needs way outstrip our ability to respond."
Rucker took over the troubled agency in 1987 and by most accounts is trying to turn things around. But one highly regarded bureaucrat does not a successful agency make. Three years after the attack on Mike Coppock, little has changed.
AIRES lost its license in 1988 to operate Mike's group home. The firm retains licenses, however, to 21 other homes around the state, and its annual contract with the state totals almost $3 million.
Mike is still living in Casa Grande, at a group home operated by another firm. His dad has become embittered by his dealings with what he calls "an inhumane state bureaucracy."
"The state created the atmosphere that allows these things to happen," says George Coppock. "All I know is that Mike and these kids have to have someplace to live. I don't want to attack the group home. I just don't want any more bad things to happen to Mike."
And what of Danny Britton, the AIRES staffer who tried to have sex with Mike Coppock?
Casa Grande police arrested Britton after hearing his confession. The Coolidge man's family bailed him out of jail a day later. In early 1988, Britton plea-bargained to a felony charge of attempting to sexually assault Mike. Pinal County Superior Court Judge E.D. McBryde sentenced Britton to four years' probation. The lenient judge then sent him on his way, to a new job as a cross-country truck driver.
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.
W.A. was the last one aboard. Jones said later he noticed W.A. had "torn up" his lunch. Jones returned to the Cholla home to fix him another meal, noticing that W.A. was sleeping in the van's back seat.
At the home, Jones bumped into Jan Glaser--the detective's wife--who reminded him they had planned to go shopping. Somehow, Jones forgot W.A. was in the van, and no one from the Work Activity Center called the Cholla home to see why he wasn't there.
More than five hours passed, and it was time for Jones to pick up the group-home residents. The outside temperature on that day was ninety degrees; Jones later remembered how hot it was in the van. Although by this time W.A. was dead in the back seat, Jones didn't see him. He drove the van back to the center, where he was told W.A. wasn't there.
In a panic, Jones drove back to the Cholla home, still not noticing W.A. in the back seat. A few minutes later, he finally put it together. Jones ran to the van and found W.A.'s body. A coroner said W.A.'s cause of death was hyperthermia.
Gayle Howell still gets upset when she talks about W.A.'s death. But she doesn't completely fault Arvie Jones. "I want you to know that Arvie loved them all, especially W.A.," she says. "Arvie is a super person. But there were no safeguards in place to keep something like this from happening."
"He was an old, mentally retarded black man, and that's pretty far down on the list," adds Tom Berning, an attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest. "He just sort of died back there and nobody cared."
Berning looked at the case in June 1989. He termed the Casa Grande police investigation "competent, if not overly enthusiastic," and added Pinal County prosecutors had been right not to charge Arvie Jones.
Berning saved most of his venom for the state of Arizona. He pointed out that the state had done no independent investigation of W.A. Scott's death and "offered no analysis as to how such incidents could be prevented in the future . . . This case constitutes a serious case of neglect."
After months of bureaucratic foot-dragging on the case, the state finally issued a "corrective action plan." It called for AIRES to fire Arvie Jones, and to start check-in procedures when transporting group-home residents.
But AIRES had fired Jones the day after W.A. Scott died, and had already instituted the very policies the state was demanding. Five months after W.A. died, the state transferred the Cholla home license from AIRES to another firm. That was the end of it.
"The system failed badly," Tom Berning says. "We weren't looking to hang Arvie Jones. We just wanted to know why Mr. Scott was in the back of a van for hours without anyone knowing or saying a thing about it. The response of the state was pretty sorry, and their investigation was abysmal."
However, Linda Church, head of Developmental Disabilities Division's licensing unit, defends her agency's actions. "It was a stupid, stupid accident. It was not malicious or intentional. I think our agency did a good job of responding once we identified the problem."
But W.A. Scott's old pal, Gayle Howell, takes his death very personally.
"I get furious when I think about the things that happen to these people," Howell says. "They have the right to be protected from bad things. W.A. was a special kind of guy. I mean, his big thing in life was toy trucks, Tonka trucks. He was just an old kid."
ROSE MARIE RAYMOND grew up on the Gila River Indian Community near Sacaton. Now 24, she is mentally retarded and functions at about a fifth-grade level. She has been living at group homes or state institutions for years.
Late last year, someone impregnated Rose, probably at her Kadota group home, owned and operated by Developmental Systems Incorporated. In various police interviews, Rose named a 22-year-old former group-home staffer as the father. The man denied Rose's allegations and that's where the case seems to have ended, since paternity tests haven't been done. But a host of unresolved issues still surrounds Rose Raymond: Can a mentally retarded person "consent" to have sex? Does that person have the right to give birth if she gets pregnant?
"We don't have much of a handle here on what is a human right," says Rose's attorney, Mike Brune. "No one thinks it was forcible rape, but I don't think she consented to what was happening. She can't communicate well, she may have questionable judgment, and her memory may not be the best. But does that mean she's fair game?"
Brune also chairs the Human Rights Committee for Pinal and Gila Counties. (Such committees are made up of community volunteers intended to be watchdogs for the mentally retarded. However, many advocates say the committees are toothless and generally out of touch. For example, Brune's Human Rights Committee didn't learn of W.A. Scott's death until three weeks after it happened.)
Brune took on Rose Raymond as a client after he learned Rose's grandmother and legal guardian, Matilda Osiff, wanted her to abort the fetus. "Rose was saying to everyone, `I want to have my baby and they won't let me,'" Brune says. "It was kind of like man bites dog."
Doctors say there is about a nine-in-ten chance Rose Marie Raymond's baby will be of normal intelligence. For a time, however, it seemed as if Matilda Osiff was going to get her way. But in February Brune won a temporary restraining order in Gila River Indian Community Tribal Court. Then, in early March, Osiff bowed to her granddaughter's wishes.
"Isn't the real issue, especially with Rose," says state DDD chief Lyn Rucker, "do adult people with developmental disabilities have the right equal to yours and mine to make decisions about their personal lives and their relationships?"
Few would disagree with that. But others say the real point is that Rose Raymond may have been cruelly taken advantage of, and that nobody did anything about it.
"I don't care if she was a willing participant, which I fully believe she was," argues developmental disabilities advocate Doug Bacon. "Had she not turned up pregnant, I would assume it would still be going on business as usual with Rose Marie. What I mean is that people were using her for sex. No one wants to get to the bottom of this."
A chronology of the Rose Raymond case bears him out. Police and court records indicate the Kadota home supervisors notified Rose's state case manager last December 27 of her pregnancy. But the Casa Grande Police Department apparently didn't hear about it until January 11.
That day, Casa Grande Sergeant Don Davis met with a state investigator to discuss the case. Davis noted in a police report, "According to [the state] investigation, the inner course [sic] was mutual" between Rose and the group-home employee.
The Casa Grande investigation languished for almost two months after Davis' initial report, as the locals deferred to the state's investigative team. However, the results of the state's investigation still weren't in sight by mid-February. Finally, Davis interviewed the Kadota group-home employee. He denied paternity and agreed to take a polygraph test, according to police. For undisclosed reasons, the test was never administered. The man soon left town, several sources say.
On February 21, Sergeant Davis concluded: "Due to the openness of the suspect and his willingness to aid in the investigation, and the opportunities Rose had to sex partners, it is my opinion at this time that no criminal activity occurred in this case."
Davis wrote in an April report that Rose Raymond's accounts to police had been inconsistent. He also pointed out that Rose had had "one and maybe two prior abortions. This shows she is sexually active." The tepid Casa Grande investigation didn't pass muster with Center of Law in the Public Interest attorney Tom Berning.
"Somebody has a very good lawsuit in this matter," Berning says. "The police sat on its hands on this. They finally said, `We don't know how to deal with these folks. Let's ship it over to the state.'"
The Center for Law filed a complaint against the Casa Grande police on June 20 with the federal Office of Civil Rights. The complaint alleges the department failed "to adequately investigate" the circumstances of Rose Raymond's pregnancy as a possible sexual assault.
Casa Grande Police Lieutenant Al Apger says in his department's defense, "To say we treat possible crimes against anyone lightly isn't true."
But Doug Bacon and other advocates aren't impressed.
"We owe the handicapped segment of our population a chance at a minimally decent life," Bacon says. "Minimally means you don't get sodomized by someone who's supposed to be taking care of you. Or that you don't get left in vans and die. It means you don't have staff members having sex with you. It means that the state agencies and the police try their best, that they care. Someone has to care."
end part 2 of 2
"She said something scary was going on at the home and I drove right over there," Howell recalls. "Someone told me W.A. was dead in the van."
"He was an old, mentally retarded black man, and that's pretty far down on the list," says an attorney with the Center for Law in the Public Interest.
"We're dying under the weight of all this," says the state's Developmental Disabilities Division chief.
"It was a very disheartening environment," George Coppock says. "People sitting around on floors with football helmets on."
"Human services in Arizona are about twenty years behind the times," one advocate says.
"W.A. was a special kind of guy. I mean, his big thing in life was toy trucks, Tonka trucks. He was just an old kid."
"Rose was saying to everyone, `I want to have my baby and they won't let me,'" her lawyer says.
"Had she not turned up pregnant, I would assume it would still be going on business as usual with Rose Marie . . . people were using her for sex."
George Coppock learned the state hadn't relayed its news until four days after his son was almost sodomized. And then it came by mail.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.