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‘I Want to Live . . . Where They Love Me’ : Courts: State forced disabled woman to leave couple that cared for her and move to a board- and-care home. Now she’s suing to go back.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tracy Grimes would like to live with people who love her and take care of her. She would like a room of her own and to be near children during the day.

Until a few months ago, Grimes--who is severely disabled from a brain stem injury--was living with a Chatsworth family who gave her all these things.

Then the state took them away.

Because the family home in a residential neighborhood did not have a community care facility license, officials from the state Department of Social Services ordered Grimes to leave, threatening the family with a $200 fine for every day she stayed.

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So in April, Grimes, 32, moved to a Northridge board-and-care facility where she has no privacy, where her only entertainment is television and where many of the other residents are too sick to talk.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Grimes filed a lawsuit Friday against the Social Services Department asking that she be able to return to the place she considers home.

“I just like what everybody likes,” said Grimes during an interview in the living room of Gabrielle and Frederick Hanna, the couple she lived with. This was Grimes’ first visit to the house since she was forced to move.

Grimes’ speech is slurred, but she is alert and enjoys talking.

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“I’m just like a normal person. I want to live in a place where they love me and I’m in the family,” she said.

“What this basically comes down to is the right of disabled people to choose where they want to live,” said Beth Osthimer, a lawyer with San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, which is also representing Grimes.

Grimes’ situation falls through the cracks of current state policies. Regulations allow family members to care for their elderly and disabled relatives in homes without a license. The state also encourages people to return to their own homes after the onset of a disability by providing In-Home Support Services payments.

But state Social Services Department officials say all other severely disabled people must live in a licensed facility.

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“Someone who is disabled and is not covered by another law cannot choose to live just anywhere,” said David Dodds, a program development chief at the department.

For Grimes, the issue is not simply one of personal choice. The facility where she now lives charges about $1,000 a month for room, board and care. Her Social Security benefits, which are her sole means of support, come to about $650 a month. The deficit has been made up since April by a friend and by members of Grimes’ church.

Now those funds have dried up. Attempts to find a less expensive facility that will take someone with Grimes’ disability have been unsuccessful.

“If something doesn’t happen,” said Esther Epstein of Neighborhood Legal Services, “Tracy will be homeless as of Sept. 7.”

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Grimes suffered her brain stem hemorrhage in 1987 when she was seven months pregnant. The child was successfully delivered, prematurely, and now lives with Grimes’ mother.

The injury left Grimes paralyzed on her left side, partially paralyzed on the right side and partly blind. She needs assistance to move her wheelchair, dress, shower and use the bathroom.

Grimes said her life was barren until she met the Hannas in 1991.

“She became like our sister,” said Gabrielle Hanna. The family visited her regularly at the facility, a different one from where she now lives.

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Last year, they asked her if she would like to move in with them.

At the Hannas’ home she had her own room. Gabrielle Hanna quit her job as a computer operator to stay home with her.

Grimes contributed $528 out of her Social Security benefits toward the house’s rent. She and the family expected that she would also be able to designate Gabrielle as her care giver and pay her the approximately $900 a month she expected to get in state benefits.

But a government inspector in March said the house would need to be licensed.

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To get a license, the house would have needed a major remodeling to conform to state regulations. But then Grimes would no longer have been eligible for state benefits: The payments are meant for people being cared for at home, not at a licensed facility.

Grimes said she has faith that she will be back with the Hannas. “I think God put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’ll be OK.’ ”


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