Woman's Ordeal Highlights Snafu


Outside Kathleen Gorgas' modest garden apartment, her parking space remains empty.

For a decade, Gorgas, who had polio as a child, has envisioned filling the space with a dependable van equipped with special controls that would allow her to commute to the counseling job she wants.

But her dream has been shattered by endless hearings and evaluations about what kind of assistance the state should provide her, which have generated enough paperwork, in the words of a Superior Court judge, to support a circus elephant.

"You don't keep someone in limbo for 10 years," she said angrily.

Gorgas blames her plight on the state Department of Rehabilitation, which provides a variety of services--including vans in some cases--to California's severely disabled.

Earlier this month, a legislative task force revealed that the department had stockpiled 39 vans in a Sacramento warehouse, some for more than two years, while clients such as Gorgas, whom the state had deemed eligible for the vehicles, waited for them.

Gorgas and other critics of the rehabilitation department maintain that the agency is accountable to no one. That, in part, keeps people like her from getting the help they need, they contend.

"They haven't had to answer to anybody," said Gorgas, who in the early 1990s received a used van that was so undependable that the state finally took it back.

Rehabilitation Department managers say that Gorgas' deteriorating health has hampered their efforts to devise a plan to assist her--and led to the seemingly endless delays.

They say they give out 25 to 30 vehicles each year to help the disabled live independently. In Gorgas' case, state officials say, the Clovis woman has contributed to her own predicament by not allowing the administrative process to run its course before pursuing litigation.

State officials say they aren't certain that Gorgas, who has the use of just one arm, can drive such a van safely. They note that Gorgas, who uses a wheelchair, suffers from post-polio syndrome and her condition has deteriorated.

"The department wanted to make sure she was stabilized in a wheelchair . . . before providing a van," said department attorney Catherine Brown.

But Gorgas' attorney, Gary Rhoades, argues that "there's no reason why one of those vans [in Sacramento] shouldn't be sent down to Fresno and get the modifications for her in particular."

Gorgas has recruited friends to drive her 175 miles to Sacramento today to join other disabled Californians scheduled to tell their stories to an Assembly oversight hearing on van services.

Gorgas, 40, loves to tend her small garden and bake cookies for friends and children in this Fresno suburb. She volunteers at a counseling center a few times a week and receives $650 a month in Supplemental Security Income.

Gorgas said she tries not to dwell on her frustrations but can't help becoming upset as she sorts through a packing box stuffed with records reflecting her decade-long battle. Three years ago, her physician warned that without a functioning van, Gorgas would become entirely homebound. He told the department: "This is a motivated lady who can contribute to society and the department is not responding appropriately."

Gorgas contracted polio when she was 3 1/2. Early on, she used a wheelchair and later leg braces.

In 1975, she moved from the foothills around Sonora to attend Cal State Fresno. After graduation, Gorgas eventually sought to pursue a career as a marriage, family and child counselor.

But her condition worsened, prompting her to seek assistance from the state. In 1987, the department mapped out a plan to aid her with school and transportation. She eventually earned a master's degree in counseling from Cal State Fresno that would allow her to work in some kinds of counseling jobs but has not passed a state test to become a counselor.

For part of 1991, Gorgas said, she continued to drive her own car to counseling-related jobs. But because of her physical condition, the car became too much of a burden to drive and she sold it.

Later in 1991 a used van was delivered to Gorgas, but the vehicle, which was plagued by electrical failures, could only be driven eight days, she said. On one occasion, Gorgas was trapped inside the van by an apparent electrical malfunction, according to court papers filed by her attorney. In a span of several years, the van had to be repaired 29 times.

In 1995, state officials acknowledged that attempts to fix the van were futile and took it back. Gorgas believed that she would swiftly receive a dependable replacement--but it has never arrived.

Gorgas appealed to a department review board, which allowed the agency more time to submit a request for a new van. So, she turned to the courts for intervention.

After hearing her case, Sacramento Superior Court Judge James Ford last year ordered the Rehabilitation Department to make a decision--any decision. He compared the bureaucratic delays experienced by Gorgas to the complicated and entangled litigation in Dickens' novel "Bleak House."

Ford scolded the department, telling the agency attorney: "You are compelled at some point along the line to say 'yes' or 'no.' That's all I'm saying. It's a rudimentary concept. It's not complicated, but you have to do it."

Ford ordered the department to make a decision within 60 days. But the agency appealed his ruling as an abuse of judicial authority, an appeal that is still pending.

The department argues in court papers that it is still working with Gorgas, and has provided her other assistance, including a motorized wheelchair.

Gorgas described herself as "angry as hell, but not surprised" when the department challenged Ford's ruling.

Sitting in her wheelchair in her living room, Gorgas said she doesn't expect her testimony at the hearing to influence her court case, but hopes that it might prevent others from experiencing a similar, drawn-out battle with the department.

"I'll be damned if I give up," she said.

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