Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Was Placement the Right Decision?

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Was Placement the Right Decision?

Article excerpt

It has been two years since the day we tearfully said good-bye to Stephanie in the residence hall at St. Coletta School in jefferson, Wisconsin.

She was 13 years old, aware that something big was happening, but puzzled about our sadness. As her parents,, we were accurately aware that in the days to follow she would look for us and we wouldn't be there. SHE WOULD MISS OUR HUGS, our words of assurance, our familiar activities. She would feel alone and frightened, and would not understand. That knowledge made our farewell all the more painful. Although Ron and I were divorced, we remained close as Stephanie's parents. She was always with one of us, and we continued to share pleasant experiences as a family Would she think we had abandoned her?

As I held Stephanie and kissed her forehead, promising I would see her soon, I fought the impulse to carry her and her suitcase back down the stairs, to the safety of our car and the security we had known before this wrenching moment.

I was suddenly overcome by a furious swirl of confusion. Inner voices drowned each other out in a debate that probably lasted no more than five seconds - five long seconds in which I could still change the course of this stinging reality.

With gentle encouragement from one of the residence group parents, Ron and I hugged Stephanie once more before she was led down the hall to her class in the school building.

We grieved. We felt a loss that mimicked death. Stephanie was our only child and now we were, in a sense, giving her up. She would still spend time with us. She would return to Ron in Texas for holiday vacations and would spend frequent weekends with me in my new home in Madison, 40 miles from the school. Even so, things would never be the same. LOOKING BACK

For many years I had been active, both as a parent and a professional, in the Association for Retarded Citizens in Austin. There I enjoyed some of the closest friendships I have ever had with other parents of children with mental retardation. Over the years, we supported one another through many trying times, counseled each other through tough decisions and laughed together over our predicaments in a way no one else would understand.

In the safety of that group of parents (mostly mothers), we could truthfully examine the impact of our children on our marriages, our relationships with immediate and extended family members, friends and society in general. Each story was different, but some common concerns prevailed.

One that loomed more and more ominously with the passing years was the question of how to provide for our sons and daughters as they approached adulthood and the end of publicly-supported schooling.

We became increasingly aware of the youngsters graduating from special education programs. Only a select few were capable of finding employment. Even fewer were eligible for the handful of group homes. All too many found themselves placed in sheltered workshops where an atmosphere of stagnation held little promise for movement into the mainstream workforce. Some fell between the cracks and stayed home all day watching television.

Efforts to remedy the situation would typically receive a lot of parental and community support in the early stages. But as the wearying process of lobbying legislators and city officials dragged on, the cause would lose steam and finally fizzle out. Grant proposals were drafted and turned down.

And when a rare victory was realized, the work was still not finished. There was the uninformed and fearful public to deal with. Community group homes were fine, they seemed to say, but not in our neighborhood. THE RESIDENTIAL SOLUTION

I first learned of St. Coletta from a graduate of the school. Kevin Tracy was a young man hired to spearhead the Self-Advocacy Program in Texas. Kevin was the most articulate and capable person labeled "mentally retarded" that I had ever met. …

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