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Growing Up Different : When the Retarded Become Parents, Perhaps Their Children Know Best How Well It Works

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Times Staff Writer

The first thing you notice about Tammy Bachrach is that she seems completely normal in every respect. She lives with her husband, a first-year law student, in a clean, uncluttered apartment in Whittier.

She has a warm, gentle, sensual way about her. She goes barefoot in long dresses and likes to sit with her heels on the edge of her chair and her arms wrapped around her knees. She teaches emotionally disturbed and mentally retarded students at John Glenn High School in a Norwalk and is about to enter a graduate program in special education at California State University Los Angeles.

The only thing not completely normal about Bachrach, in fact, is the relationship she had with her mother, Sharon Woods, while growing up.

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Bachrach was 7 when she first began to be aware that her mother was different. She would ask her for help with her second-grade math homework and her mother would say to ask her father. Bachrach’s father, who had a learning disability, would say to ask the teacher. When her mother needed to get a phone number from information, she would ask Bachrach to make the call--the operator spoke too fast for her and Woods always got the digits wrong. Once, when Bachrach’s uncle called from Washington state to ask someone to meet him at the airport, Woods got confused by all the flight information. “We were at the airport looking for him for hours,” Bachrach says.

Still, when she was a young girl, it didn’t seem to Bachrach that such occurrences were that big a deal. “In the family,” she says of her mother, “it was just said that she was a slow learner.”

As Bachrach got older, however, things began to change. At age 10, she says, she began to notice a disconcerting role reversal. Instead of her going to her mother for advice, now, it seemed, her mother--who by then was divorced--was coming to her.

But it wasn’t till Bachrach was 16 that psychologists tested her mother and finally put a name on the problem--she was “developmentally disabled.” She had an IQ of 70.

This was far from being a family tragedy. Bachrach’s home was a warm, welcoming place. “I felt real comfortable bringing friends over,” says Bachrach. And further, unlike some other parents, her mother was always there: “I could talk to her real openly because it wasn’t a real strong parent role.”

Which is not to say that Bachrach’s adolescence was problem-free. The hardest time was when she was 18 and starting to date. The family of her boyfriend and now husband, Mark Bachrach, lived in a Westwood condominium with high ceilings and a spiral staircase. His father, a former Drug Enforcement Administration officer, was sophisticated and self-confident. Their dinner parties were perfect ensembles of crystal and candlelight.

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In contrast, says Bachrach, her mother was shy, and when meeting new people, she tended to look away. Whenever Tammy brought Mark to her mom’s house for dinner, they’d eat in front of the television on paper plates. The parakeet would be loose and the kitty litter needed changing.

None of that bothered Mark. He was far more worried about their marrying, then having a mentally retarded child. Tammy had a younger brother who also was mentally retarded; Mark feared a genetic problem ran in the family. If he and Tammy did get married, due to their religious convictions, abortion was out of the question.

At first he considered breaking off the relationship. In the end, says Mark, “I decided I could live with it.” Since then, genetic testing has revealed that the retardation of Tammy’s brother was not inherited. But “if we do (one day) have a handicapped child,” says Mark, “we will feel that it was because God felt we could handle it.”

The idea that women with mental retardation should be permitted to bear and raise children is a relatively new notion in this country. Until as recently as 20 years ago, such people routinely were institutionalized, sterilized or supervised in such a way as to preclude physical intimacy. And, if by chance, a mentally retarded woman did get pregnant, the child was generally taken away at birth to be given up for adoption.

But over the last two decades, many attitudes have changed. Mentally retarded people, who in former times might have been institutionalized, now live in the community (about 1% to 3% of the U.S. population is mentally retarded, according to the American Association on Mental Retardation). Compulsory sterilization has been banned in California since 1980. And among people who work with developmentally disabled persons, there is a growing notion that the mentally retarded have the same rights as anyone else to a sex life and children.

“Everyone has procreational autonomy,” says USC law professor Michael Shapiro. “We don’t require licenses for people to reproduce.”

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Which is not to say that everyone concerned is entirely happy about the current state of affairs. Parents of mentally retarded children, for one, often tend to feel that current attitudes and court decisions regarding the rights of the retarded to bear and raise children have gone too far.

“We used to keep people sterilized like cattle in state institutions,” says Fred Hougardy, executive director of the Assn. for Retarded Citizens. “But once we (ended) that, because of the rolling locomotive of civil rights, it ran over everything, including common sense.”

And now, as a result, says Hougardy, some advocates for the mentally retarded--he cites as one such group the Southern California Protection and Advocacy, a federally funded legal agency--now say that “all people should have children; all people ought to go on and become parents.”

Not only is it “crazy,” says Hougardy, it’s also unfair, because it’s not the social workers who end up taking care of the children in such cases--it’s the grandparents.

But when anyone has the temerity to suggest that, perhaps, there might be some people so severely handicapped as to preclude their being able to care for children, some of these professional advocates become extremely touchy, says John Chase, trustee of the Exceptional Children Foundation.

As a result, social workers don’t even dare suggest tubal ligations any more for retarded women, says Rose Bromwich, a California State University, Northridge, professor in the education, psychology and counseling department. Physicians are reluctant to perform the operation. And the courts, says law professor Shapiro, won’t order the procedure for fear of being labeled fascist.

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Advocates for the rights of the mentally retarded respond that their critics are misinformed about the possible dangers. It’s the mildly mentally retarded women who get pregnant and have children, not the women who don’t even know what pregnancy is.

And as for grandparents sometimes having to assume the burden of caring for their children’s offspring, there’s nothing unusual about that, says Steven Forness, director of UCLA’s Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Program. “Even with normal parents, there are times when the grandparents have to pick up the pieces where the biological parent has not been able to handle parenting responsibilities.”

In any case, social workers say, no one has to fear that large numbers of retarded women are out there having children. “Clearly at the bottom end of the spectrum, sex is not an issue,” says Sanford Gerber, a speech and hearing professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “These are people who are clearly helpless.”

It’s true, says Tammy Bachrach, who works with severely retarded or emotionally disturbed people. “They drool, they slobber, they hit themselves. Some of them are diapered. They don’t even know about sex.”

Retarded women who do get pregnant, though, usually deliver normal babies, says Andrew Tymchuk of the UCLA medical school’s psychiatry department, who notes that people with severe genetic problems tend to be infertile and most mild kinds of retardation typically are not passed on.

And even when a mentally retarded woman can’t or won’t take care of her infant, it’s usually not a problem to find the baby a home. “There are too few babies for all the people in the world who want to adopt them,” says Gail Sass, assistant director of Harbor Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled.

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For the most part, social workers say, mentally retarded women get pregnant for many of the same reasons that other women do. They want someone to love. They like the intimacy and affection of sex. A child is compensation for a lack of self-esteem. They don’t have a clue about contraception or have lost track of their birth control. And sometimes they just want “to prove they are grown-ups and want to do grown-up things,” says Louise Van Zee of Baby Lady Development Programs, an organization that provides parental training to developmentally disabled people in their homes.

With such people it is very difficult to raise the subject of abortion. “For the first time, (pregnancy) is something they are doing that is very normal,” says Carolyn Jackson, manager of Clinical Services, South Central Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities.

If the woman is mildly retarded, no one worries about her raising a child because, in most cases, says law professor Shapiro, such individuals are “indistinguishable from the rest of us.”

It’s the severely retarded women who cause the anguish. These are the people, Jackson says, who can’t take care of themselves, let alone a child, but insist: “You’re not going to take my baby away. I have a boyfriend. And you’re not going to do anything about it.”

In such cases, says Sass of the Harbor Regional Center, “we have to suspend any moral judgments as an agency.”

Besides, what other option is there, asks Linda Andron, a social worker with the SHARE/UCLA Parenting Project. “If a woman declines to take a (birth control) pill the staff can’t ram them down her throat.”

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Although mildly mentally retarded women can be taught parenting skills, the process is not always a simple matter. Mentally retarded women often don’t know anything about the mechanics of giving birth. Lamaze classes are generally too complicated, so instructors go to prenatal classes with them and re-explain everything in simplified language. “You have to be very detailed and very repetitive,” says Carolyn Jackson.

Once the baby arrives, mentally retarded mothers have a whole new set of issues to deal with. “One problem,” says Sass, “is that the developmentally delayed parent doesn’t generalize.” They, thus, are unaware of the normal precautions and techniques that most people pick up on their own. In such a situation, the women must be taught to do laundry, make medical appointments, draw up shopping lists, ride buses, prepare baby food, diaper and give baths.

Usually they can’t read, and, as a result, require explicit instructions on problems such as keeping household chemicals out of reach, locking up drugs and dispensing medicines.

Because of their handicaps, mentally retarded mothers also do some unexpected things. Andron of the UCLA Parenting Project once had a client whose son was briefly hospitalized when he became sick at school, whereupon the school bus driver who generally picked him up for classes dropped him from his route. The mother never said anything and the boy was out of school for three months until Andron finally found out about it and re-enrolled him in classes. Another teacher had a mentally retarded client who took her son in for a second series of shots even though he’d had a complete set already.

But the biggest problem mentally retarded mothers have is when over-cautious neighbors, teachers or pediatricians call the police or county Children’s Services.

“Common childhood accidents may be interpreted by child protection workers as indicative of parental incompetency or serve as grounds for the removal of the child from the home,” says UCLA’s Tymchuk. A mentally retarded mother takes her child to a hospital emergency room for some common childhood accident and the doctors and nurses take one look at her disheveled state or lack of comprehension, says Tymchuk, and right away they’re on the phone to agencies trying to put the kid in a foster home.

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Many mentally retarded mothers consequently live in fear. “They think if they make one slip,” says social worker Joel Rice, “someone is going to take their child away.”

It’s 9:30 on a bright Thursday morning in the recreation building at West Wilshire Park, where five developmentally disabled mothers and their children are sitting and chatting with Andron, of the UCLA parenting project.

One of the mothers, Carolyn Lorenzo, is a loud, likable, chatty person who tells Andron a long involved story about a barely noticeable red mark on the cheek of her almost 3-year-old son, Nicholas. “He fell down the front stairs. I went inside just for a minute. I told him not to go on the stairs. ‘You’re going to get me in trouble.’ ”

Andron, a candid, no-nonsense woman, uses the story as an opportunity to caution the group members about the consequences of childhood accidents.

“You want to hear a terrible story? “ she asks. She then tells them about a nurse she knows who had lanced a boil on her daughter’s hand. But at school, the girl inexplicably told the teacher that her parents had burned her hand, whereupon the police showed up and took the kids away. Then, when the father called up to say that his children needed their medication and blankets, the social worked replied: “You should have thought of that before you burned them.”

And, says Andron, “they still haven’t gotten them back.”

“Aw, that’s crass,” says Lorenzo, who, quickly extracting a lesson from Andron’s story, calls over her son to tell him not to tell anyone where he got the mark on his face. “Tell them to talk to me and I’ll tell them the truth,” she says.

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Actually, says Andron, her thorniest problems are often not with her mentally retarded clients themselves but rather with their normal intelligence mothers and sisters who act as their guardians.

Andron, for example, has one client who lives in her mom’s big old house with 10 adult relatives and their 15 assorted children. “It’s very dangerous. They are forever taking kids to the hospital,” she says. One youngster badly cut his foot on broken beer bottles one uncle left in the back yard; another overdosed on medicine another uncle left uncapped.

Yet when Andron urged her client to take her two kids and move out, she says, the client’s mother answered that it was out of the question: “I just bought a new van.” To make the payments, she needed the $1,200 a month that her daughter was bringing home from welfare and disability.

Because of the efforts of advocates for the retarded, many groups are now sensitive to the rights of such women to bear and raise children, but there also is another right involved, says Sass of the Harbor Regional Center for the Developmentally Disabled--that is the “right of the child to have a competent parent.”

Unless they have proper training, some mentally retarded women tend to be “relatively insensitive” or “nonresponsive” and give their children “little contingent praise and affection,” says UCLA’s Tymchuk. Sometimes they inadvertently ignore their baby’s needs, forgetting to hold him or feed him. In other cases, they simply don’t interact with the baby enough. And when this continues too long, there comes a point where “the child doesn’t make any demands at all and becomes withdrawn and passive,” says Bromwich, the specialist in infancy, early childhood and parent education.

Even for people who fully support the rights of the developmentally disabled to be parents, the issue can be difficult.

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Woods, Tammy Bachrach’s mother, is shy around strangers. But her daughter says her mother dislikes society’s tendency to label human beings. Whether a person should be allowed to be a parent depends on each individual’s abilities, not on whether they are considered mildly or moderately retarded, says Woods, who regrets that in her family, because relatives served as guardians for her children, she did not have full control.

As for Tammy Bachrach, though she is conservator for her 22-year-brother, Tim Woods, she believes she doesn’t have the right “to say whether he should have kids or not.”

Instead, she says, her plan is to wait until she and her husband have their first child. Then, she says, she’ll invite her brother over so he can get up with the infant “every two hours all night long.” This way, long before the issue comes up in his own life, “he’ll have a realistic view of what fatherhood will be like.”

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