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‘I Was So Happy’ : Disabled Woman Seeks State OK to Go ‘Home’

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 due to 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 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 the only entertainment is the TV, and 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 California Department of Social Services 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 who cared for her. This was Grimes’ first time back in the house since she was forced to move.

“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.

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“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 helping to represent 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. State laws also encourage people to return to their own homes after the onset of a disability, by providing In-Home Support Services payments.

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

“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 DSS.

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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 have been unsuccessful.

“If something doesn’t happen,” said attorney 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 boy was successfully delivered, and now lives with Grimes’ mother. But Grimes said her mother cannot care for her.

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, to dress, shower and use the bathroom. Her speech is slurred, but she is alert and enjoys talking.

Grimes’ life was grim until she met the Hannas in 1991 at church in Reseda.

“She became like our sister,” said Gabrielle Hanna. The family visited her regularly at the facility and began taking her on family outings.

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

“I was so happy,” Grimes said.

Grimes had her own room and enjoyed the company of the Hannas’ three sons. Gabrielle 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.

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But a government inspector in March said that the house would need to be licensed for Grimes to continue to live there. “They were treating us like we were a business,” Gabrielle said, gesturing around the living room. “Does this look like a business? I took a cut in pay to do this because we wanted her here.”

To get a license, the house would have needed a major remodeling to conform to state regulations. Then in a Catch-22 situation, Grimes would no longer be eligible for state benefits: The payments are meant for people being cared for at home, not in 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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