Longform

One mom's struggle to keep her son alive in the state's care highlights the challenges of supporting the developmentally disabled

A late-July monsoon beat down on the roof of BJ Bolender's Honda as she drove the streets of west Phoenix, desperate to find her son Drew. He was at a house somewhere in Laveen, but she'd never been there before. Roads were flooding, and she could see barely five feet in front of her. But she couldn't stop or turn around.

Bolender was racing the clock, racing her son's neurological system. If she didn't get to Drew in time, he could die.

She was in the middle of the most harrowing, chaotic 48 hours of a very bad year.

And things were about to get worse.


BJ Bolender didn't lose track of her son. The state of Arizona did. And he's no little kid who wandered off in a storm. He's a 28-year-old man who, on the morning of July 31, was dumped by his state-appointed caretaker at Gompers Center, his adult day program, and left without anyplace to go.

Drew is developmentally disabled, which can mean a lot of things, according to the official definition. And it can mean a lot of things when it comes to Drew. At times, he acts as mature as a boy in his late teens, playing video games and talking about girls. He's fun to be around and offers opinions on everything from his favorite band (Metallica) to his favorite baseball team (the Diamondbacks). He favors baggy T-shirts and backwards baseball caps. He has a girlfriend whom he describes as a "bombshell," and two little nieces he adores. He is happiest when he can play with his Japanese Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards or spend hours getting lost in a PlayStation game.

Other times, he's like a 5-year-old. Drew has hydrocephalus — commonly known as "water on the brain" — and it's caused learning delays, a severe seizure disorder, and behavior disorders such as depression and severe attention deficit disorder.

His mother has spent his lifetime dealing with Drew-related crises, but before that day last July, she'd never lost contact with him.

Drew is not technically mentally retarded, but he is developmentally disabled and he does require almost constant supervision. He attended high school, and he graduated with an actual diploma, not the certificate of attendance many developmentally delayed kids receive.

Drew can have a conversation — using the word metaphor correctly — and use a computer. But his condition is deteriorating. He's suffered repeated brain trauma from surgeries and seizures.

In certain situations, Drew reacts as a much younger person would. When he goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth, he forgets what he was going to do by the time he gets there.

"One moment, he can be like a 4- or 5-year-old, getting really angry and having a temper tantrum. But then you can see him acting like a 13- or 14-year-old boy — farting on purpose, things like that. He loves PlayStation, wrestling, and all that stuff," says his mom. "Once in a while, he is almost age-appropriate."

He is capable of learning and growing — rather than plateauing — but because he is developmentally delayed, his growth takes longer than normal.

Drew Bolender is tough to care for. And he lives in a state that is not known for providing top-notch services for the developmentally disabled.

To be sure, some hearts are in the right place. For instance, in 2006, the Arizona Legislature voted almost unanimously to change the legal designation of people with an IQ below 70 from mentally retarded to cognitively disabled.

But for all the politically correct talk in Arizona, Drew's case — and other cases of poor care in group homes, some of which have led to preventable deaths — makes it painfully clear that the state isn't walking the walk.

Right now, the state House of Representatives is considering legislation that would further limit the regulation of group homes by removing DDD's authority to monitor such facilities. Group home provider agencies want to get accredited by a national organization and, thus, skip any inspections for up to five years. The measure slipped through the House Government Affairs Committee (instead of Health and Human Services, where it likely would have died) and could be before the full House by next week.

On the financial front, Rep. Pete Hershberger, a Tucson Republican, confirms that critical services for the developmentally disabled are on the chopping block and the Department of Economic Security will likely be asked to cut 10 percent of its bare-bones budget.

Things already are pretty bad for the Bolender family.

Since moving to Arizona three years ago, BJ Bolender says her son has lived in homes where his caretakers smoked marijuana on the job, stole his controlled-substance medication, and ignored his medical protocols, including those designed to keep him from having life-threatening seizures.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin