In Harm's Way
Seventeen-year-old Santiago "Jimmy" Rodriguez could not walk or talk, but he enjoyed his classes at Glendale High School in the fall of 1995.
The junior flirted with attractive girls. He shared a passion for rap and ranchero and Radio Campesina with the guys, and tapped out macho wisecracks on his Liberator, a computerized device that gave him a voice. He showed off by racing his electric wheelchair, which he steered with his neck, down campus sidewalks and through mud puddles.
He came to school wearing cowboy hats and baseball caps, Converse All Stars and baggy jeans. Once, he arrived with his arms tied to his wheelchairwith yellow lace, which is all his mother could find that day to fasten his arms to the chair. Because Rodriguez was born with cerebral palsy, he preferred to have his spastic legs and arms strapped to his wheelchair to prevent him from injuring himself or others. With his legs and arms secured, he could more easily operate his Liberator, a sophisticated computer he learned to use in junior high school and still uses today. The battery-operated Liberator consists of a keyboard with 128 different keys marked with letters, pictures and parts of speech. The keyboard itself was -- and is -- fastened to the front of Rodriguez's wheelchair. Rodriguez controls a device strapped to his head to beam light on individual keys. Once a sentence is tapped out on the keyboard with the light beam, Rodriguez uses the light beam to voice-activate the Liberator. It sounds a little like an old Speak & Spell toy.
In high school, Rodriguez mastered hundreds of words on his Liberator, including "Nasty Boy Klik" (a local rap group) and "Shakespeare."
"He was comfortable with himself, " says Dale Whitney, Rodriguez's guardian and former special education teacher at Glendale High.
But everything changed on November 19, 1995, the day Rodriguez claims he was molested by a male caregiver sent to his home by the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), a sub-agency of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
And things did not get better. After he was removed from his mother's home by the state, he was subsequently molested three more times while being cared for by the state, he claims.
He was such an easy target.
His arms and legs were useless and often tied down. And when he didn't have his Liberator, he had no voice. He says three of the incidents occurred when the Liberator was not attached to his wheelchair.
The first alleged perpetrator, caregiver Joseph William Suire, maintains he is innocent. (Through his attorney, he declined to comment for this story.) Suire has been charged with two counts of sexual abuse and one count of sexual assault of Rodriguez. The Maricopa County Superior Court trial is scheduled for July.
In 1997, Rodriguez sued the state and several DDD contractors in Superior Court, alleging he was molested a total of four times in state-licensed facilities. Three incidents were witnessed only by Rodriguez and the alleged perpetrators. The fourth incident, in which Rodriguez was molested by a mentally retarded man with a documented history of sexual and physical aggression, was witnessed by caregivers.
The two cases put the state in the unusual predicament of contradicting itself in court.
In the civil lawsuit, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which hired Republican congressional hopeful Tom Liddy to defend the state against Rodriguez, says Rodriguez somehow "brought on" the alleged sex abuse.
In the criminal case, deputy county attorney Bill Amato says just the opposite. Amato is prosecuting Suire for the state, and portrays Rodriguez in court as a "victim" with a "target on his back" who has "been molested . . . several times."
"Jimmy was targeted [for sexual abuse] for two reasons," says Rodriguez's Phoenix attorney, Larry Tinsley.
"One, because he is attractive. Two, because the perpetrators assumed Jimmy couldn't speak up for himself or defend himself. . . . He is a person who is trapped inside his body and he can't run away."
Roger Deshaies, assistant director of the DDD, won't comment on the Rodriguez case. Neither will he excuse what may have happened.
"There is never any excuse or explanation" for such abuse, he says.
According to Deshaies, sexual abuse of people with disabilities is probably vastly underreported. The reasons: Some victims can't talk; other victims fear retribution by perpetrators.
"One of the most tragic [national] statistics is the number of people with disabilities who are sexually molested," Deshaies says. "Ninety percent of women with disabilities and 60 percent of men with disabilities may be molested in their lifetimes."
Jimmy Rodriguez and people like him are defenseless.
Jimmy Rodriguez says that he was very happy in the fall of 1995. He dreamed of graduating, living independently in a house with other disabled people, holding down a job. He nominated his teacher, Dale Whitney, for a "Silver Apple Award" sponsored by the Dial Corporation and a local television station. Among other things, he wrote that Whitney "makes me work hard so I can make a better life for myself." Whitney won the award, which today hangs in the office of Glendale High School. (Whitney has since become Rodriguez's legal guardian.)
Rodriguez's home life wasn't serene, but it wasn't bad, either, he says. His mother, Yolanda Granado, supported Rodriguez and three younger children by working minimum-wage jobs -- as a seamstress, a convenience-store clerk, a day-care worker. The disappointments in her own life -- two divorces and poverty -- rarely stopped her from trying to encourage her son.
"I always told Jimmy that everyone has some kind of handicap," Granado says.
She let him feel comfortable in his own skin. It was okay to be in a wheelchair; he could still have fun with his friends and excel academically.
"It was a very loving home," Whitney would later testify in a deposition. "Despite all the problems, his mom loved him very much and that's always been very, very obvious."
Although Rodriguez qualified for attendant care at home, overworked DDD caseworkers could not always find part-time caregivers to stay with him when his mother worked.
Most professional caregivers preferred to work full-time in institutions. And Jimmy Rodriguez preferred to live at home.
Because the state failed to provide attendants for months at a time, Granado relied on her daughter, Maria, who was two years younger than Jimmy, to care for the boy when she worked.
Occasionally, Maria would hit Jimmy -- one such incident was reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) by the school counselor.
But Rodriguez is quick to forgive his little sister. After all, he says, she was just a kid.
"She had to take care of me, and it's hard because I have a lot of needs like going to the bathroom and eating and changing," he says.
Often, Granado herself would be so exhausted from working it was all she could do to get dinner on the table. She did not have the strength to carry her spastic, full-grown son to the bathtub and bathe him.
"She needs to learn to take better care of her kids," Rodriguez says of his mother, but first Granado must learn to "take care of herself."
In the fall of 1995, the family had fallen on particularly hard times. Their west-side apartment building was infested with roaches. It was not unusual for Rodriguez to come to class in need of a bath, with roaches crawling on his Liberator and wheelchair. Whitney and a teacher's aide donned rubber gloves, plucked off the roaches, crushed them with their shoes. They insisted Rodriguez keep his Liberator at school because the roaches at home clogged up the device and broke it. Whitney tried to make light of the insects, and of Rodriguez's body odor, but Rodriguez recalls, "It was embarrassing."
Rodriguez and his mother were relieved when DDD finally found Joseph Suire as a part-time caregiver in November 1995. Although they both claim they were somewhat taken aback when Suire kissed Rodriguez on the cheek after an initial meeting, they say they were not unduly alarmed. After all, Suire had been sent by Full Health Care, a company licensed by DDD. (Full Health Care has denied wrongdoing.)
When an attorney later asked Rodriguez why he allowed Suire to care for him even after the reported kiss on the cheek, Rodriguez answered: "I wanted a bath."
Joseph Suire arrived at Granado's apartment to bathe Rodriguez on November 19. Carrie Ortiz, a family friend, happened to be visiting the apartment that day. Granado left her son with Suire and Ortiz to get her truck repaired.
Jimmy Rodriguez cannot talk about what happened next, because he is a witness in Suire's upcoming criminal trial. But in depositions and police reports, Rodriguez claims Suire and Ortiz carried him into the bathroom and put him in the bathtub. There was about an inch or two of water in the tub. After Ortiz left the bathroom, Suire allegedly performed fellatio on Rodriguez, whispering to the terrified boy: "Do you like it?"
When it was over, Suire washed Rodriguez's hair and dressed him.
Because of the roach infestation in the apartment, the Liberator had been left at school. Suire later said he thought Rodriguez had no way to communicate.
According to CPS records, in six years the agency had "substantiated" four instances of "neglect" of Jimmy and the other children. The neglect amounted to Granado's leaving her children alone while she worked.
"Mrs. Granado has been neglectful in the past in using Maria as a babysitter of the younger siblings and Santiago," a CPS report says.
"It appears that Mrs. Granado tried her best to meet Santiago's special needs, and at the same time care for her three younger children. However, there appears to be a pattern of neglect and lack of supervision in the home."
CPS concluded that "to prevent further neglect or abuse," Rodriguez should be immediately taken from his mother's home and placed in temporary foster care. The irony, of course, is that the event that prompted the state to remove Rodriguez from his home had nothing to do with Yolanda Granado. A state caregiver allegedly abused Rodriguez, not his mother.
"I begged them [CPS] not to take him away from his mother," Whitney recalls. "I said, "You don't understand. You are taking him from what he loves most, his home and his school.' But CPS said, "You don't know anything, you are just his teacher.'"
Whitney couldn't help Rodriguez. She couldn't help his mother.
Rodriguez wept when he was taken from his mother, removed from Glendale High and placed in two foster homes where he stayed several weeks. In one home, he says, the caregiver refused to toilet him, put him in diapers and left him alone in an empty room. Finally, DDD placed Rodriguez in a group home in west Phoenix. He was once again able to attend Glendale High.
But he was not the happy-go-lucky Jimmy Rodriguez he'd been before.
"He never felt sorry for himself until all this happened," says Whitney.
Rodriguez returned to his classroom subdued and red-eyed from crying, a kid who realized for the first time in his life exactly how vulnerable he was.
And in the following eight months, Rodriguez would report being sexually molested three more times while under the care of the State of Arizona.
Yolanda Granado will never forget the day 21 years ago when her son Jimmy was born. Yolanda and her husband, José Rodriguez, a laborer from Mexico, had no health insurance. But they wanted their unborn baby to receive the best medical care possible, so they prepaid $2,000 to a Phoenix hospital so that Yolanda could have a safe delivery.But the first-time mother had an unusually long labor. And she wonders now why the doctors let it go on so long.
"After about 12 hours of labor, the fetal monitor began going off," she says. She knew something was wrong with her unborn child. But she says hospital personnel delayed in performing a Caesarean delivery.
"They should have operated right away," she says tearfully. "Maybe then Jimmy would have had cerebral palsy, but a more mild form."
She knew something was wrong, but no one would explain what had happened. She was devastated. Her pregnancy had been normal. She had expected to take home a happy, healthy baby.
Jimmy Rodriguez was not officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy for months. Like so many of the approximately 500,000 people in the United States who have cerebral palsy, Rodriguez's brain was deprived of oxygen during his mother's difficult first-time labor. Certain areas of his brain were damaged, preventing him from speaking or controlling his limbs.
Granado vowed to take care of Jimmy and his kid sister Maria even after she and José divorced when Jimmy was 3.
Granado's own mother had died when Granado was 14; there was no grandmother to help her with the kids when she worked. Her job prospects were limited. She had dropped out of school in the 10th grade, but later earned her GED.
Despite her struggles, Granado actively participated in Jimmy's special education classes. She taught her son both English and Spanish.
"He has been a smart boy since the get-go," Granado says.
Beyond making sure her son got regular medical care, Granado heeded the advice of "curanderas" who said their folk medicine would cure Jimmy.
"Every time you hear something, you try it," she says.
She massaged coffee grounds and honey into the boy's useless legs. She sprinkled a powder made of dried rattlesnake on his food "just like salt and pepper."
But nothing could fix Jimmy, and the family accepted his disability as something that was meant to be.
Although she is Latina, she does not think racism factored into the state's decision to take her son away from her. It was instead a certain arrogance toward the poor.
She remembers CPS caseworkers chastising her for having an empty refrigerator. She remembers they rebuked her for not having wheelchair access. She remembers they informed her after the Suire incident that her home was "inappropriate" for Jimmy.
"I will never forget that word "inappropriate,'" she says.
Now she ponders bitterly how "inappropriate" the state's care turned out to be.
On March 20, 1996, just four months after the Suire incident, Jimmy Rodriguez was found in his bed at a group home with his underwear pulled down below his knees. Since Rodriguez could not control his arms or legs, there was no way he could pull his own briefs down. He said he'd been fondled by a male caregiver employed by Developmental Systems Incorporated, which ran the state-licensed group home where he'd been placed by the state. The male caregiver refused to talk to officials and resigned. CPS could not "substantiate" Rodriguez's allegation. Phoenix police were unable to establish that the abuse took place because of "an absence of physical evidence and/or supportive evidence."
DSI denied wrongdoing. Later, attorneys for the state and DSI would imply that Rodriguez made up the story so that he would be moved to a different group home.
Whitney contends that Rodriguez was showing signs that he had been abused. He brooded, was less enthusiastic about school, dropped classes and no longer seemed interested in making friends. And he missed his mother.
It was far better, Rodriguez now says, to live in a loving home with roaches than to be warehoused in a group home with strange male caregivers he could not deter.
And things would only get worse for Jimmy Rodriguez.
The state placed him in a west Phoenix home operated by Good Shepherd Lutheran Home of the West. All of the residents in the home were mentally retarded adults. One of the residents -- we'll call him "Jake" -- had a long history of sexual and physical aggression. Both Good Shepherd and DDD knew of Jake's propensities -- at least 20 incidents were documented in their files.
But neither DDD nor Good Shepherd advised Rodriguez's caseworker of Jake's history. In fact, the required "pre-placement meeting" between caseworkers and Good Shepherd staff was not held before Rodriguez was moved into the house. If the meeting had been held, Rodriguez might have been protected.
On June 5, 1996, Nadine Walls, a Good Shepherd caregiver, discovered Jake undressing Rodriguez.
Jake had unfastened the wheelchair straps and Rodriguez had slipped down in the chair -- one of the straps used to secure Rodriguez's chest to the wheelchair was wrapped around his neck. He looked terrified.
Jake explained that he wanted to help give Rodriguez a bath. Since Walls did not know of Jake's history, she said in a deposition that she was not alarmed. She says she gently rebuked Jake and resettled Rodriguez.
That same day, Jake's DDD caseworker wrote: "Inappropriate sexual aggression against weaker or helpless individuals remains an urgent concern . . . [Jake's ] inappropriate advantage taking of his defenseless roommate requires that staff be very aware of [Jake's] whereabouts in the home. He's very capable of using a lack of attention to the roommate's disadvantage."
Walls later testified that even after the June 5 incident, no one at DDD or Good Shepherd informed her of Jake's background.
Rodriguez's DDD caseworker, Laura Boyd, said in a deposition that she learned of Jake's history on June 14, 1996. Boyd said she wanted to move Rodriguez out of the house immediately but her supervisor nixed the idea.
Five days later, on June 19, 1996, Walls and another caregiver left Jake and Rodriguez in the living room watching television. Rodriguez did not have his Liberator with him. His legs and arms were strapped to his wheelchair.
When the caregivers returned to the living room after a smoke, Jake was masturbating Rodriguez, who had involuntarily ejaculated. Again, the expression on Rodriguez's face was one of terror.
The fact that Rodriguez ejaculated made the molestation all the more horrendous for him, says his attorney, Larry Tinsley.
"Victims of rape and sexual abuse sometimes have bodies that betray them," says Tinsley. "Jimmy was a teenager and lots of stimuli can cause teenagers to become aroused. His ejaculation is not equivalent to his consent."
Rodriguez himself will only say: "I am not gay. I like girls."
Immediately after this incident, Jake was sent off to summer camp. Rodriguez remained in the Good Shepherd home. Since the police had visited the home, practically everyone knew that Rodriguez had been molested.
Which may explain why on July 4, Rodriguez was allegedly molested again -- this time by a new male caregiver who, Rodriguez claims, tried to fondle him. Rodriguez and the caregiver were alone in the house. Rodriguez says he was in his wheelchair at the time, and that he managed to escape out to the sidewalk through an open door, where he was later found by staffers.
The caregiver denied molesting Rodriguez.
Police could not confirm that the molestation actually happened, and lawyers for Good Shepherd would later imply that Rodriguez was a homophobe who had made up the incident so the caregiver, who was gay and HIV-positive, would be fired.
CPS also accused Rodriguez of fabricating the molestation, according to the July 24, 1996, notes of Jimmy's psychologist, Lori Jordan.
"CPS stated that the . . . report was unfounded and the investigator felt Jimmy was manipulative and was lying. . . . I have concerns that official records erroneously state that he [Rodriguez] is a manipulative liar."
The notion that Rodriguez's molestation accounts are apocryphal surfaces over and over in court documents. For instance, in late 1999, Suire attempted to convince a criminal judge that Rodriguez had lied about all four claims of sexual abuse -- including the allegations against him.
But Superior Court Judge Anna M. Baca ruled against Suire. After studying documents pertaining to all four instances, she ruled in October 1999 that there was no proof Jimmy Rodriguez lied about anything.
After the last instance of alleged abuse, Jimmy Rodriguez was suicidal. He knew he could kill himself in only one way -- he would drive his electric wheelchair into rush-hour traffic. On days that he was particularly morose, Whitney would order caregivers to move him into a manual wheelchair, which he could not operate.The once-confident Glendale High student seemed to have vanished. He was often glum and timid and not interested in life. Other students no longer gravitated to him.
He underwent years of therapy to overcome posttraumatic stress syndrome stemming from the alleged sexual abuse, as well as his new feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.
"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.
"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.
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.
His own social life, however, is picking up.
He has a girlfriend, a former caregiver at his group home. He had often wondered if he would ever have consensual sex, and finally, he says, it happened. He enjoys sex "just like everybody else does, except the woman does all the work."
With his girlfriend and his jobs and weekends with his family, Jimmy Rodriguez finally seems to be getting what he wants, which is, simply, to be "like all the other 21-year-olds."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.