'We try to give him a lot of love'

November 7, 2011

This story was originally published in the Washington Post Magazine on Sept. 29, 1991.

EARLY ON A MONDAY MORNING IN A NORTHWEST WASHINGTON TOWN HOUSE, Ricardo Thornton gets his 4-year-old son dressed for school. Ricky already has on his navy blue pants and his powder blue panda bear shirt from the National Zoo.He's stretched out on his back, on the beige carpeted floor of his bedroom. He sticks up one skinny leg and places his bare foot on his father's knee so Thornton can put a sock and tennis shoe on it.

"I get dressed up," the boy says, giggling and kicking his feet.

"Be still, Ricky," his father pleads.

It's 6:30 a.m., and they have just begun their weekday ritual, preparing to catch the bus so Ricardo can drop off Ricky at preschool before heading to his job as an aide at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.

Because his wife, Donna, has to be at work much earlier, Ricardo dresses their son. It's a ritual completed by countless families each morning, and in this household it looks no different. A small child is caressed, his hair is combed, his face is washed tenderly, and he is dressed. There is nothing in the routine to hint that this child's parents are mentally retarded.

Donna and Ricardo were raised in institutions and met in one of them, Forest Haven in Laurel, the District's residence for the mentally and physically disabled. They lived in crowded, foul-smelling brick dormitories isolated from the rest of the world on a chunk of land off a country road. There, troubled children were sometimes physically abused, but most often simply neglected.

In most states -- and in the District -- there are laws still on the books that forbid people like Donna and Ricardo from getting married. But in most cases the laws are no longer enforced. They were written during an era when the mentally handicapped were considered "idiots," incapable of making decisions for themselves.

Now the Thorntonsare in the vanguard of a small group of people previously confined for their mental handicaps who belatedly are being allowed to lead fuller lives, lives that sometimes include marriage. This change is prompting new and unexpected questions: Will the children of these unions be normal? Can people like Donna and Ricardo function as parents?
Experts agree that the mentally handicapped are no more likely to give birth to children with mental disabilities than are people in the general population. They question whether society is willing and able to give retarded parents enough help and support to successfully guide the development of their children.

Ricardo and Donna are mildly retarded, with IQs just under 70 in a world where 100 is about average. Yet they have learned to live outside of walls; to read bus schedules and catch subways; to plan a meal and shop for groceries; to earn money, budget it and write checks; to be husband and wife. Now they are learning to be father and mother.

"OPEN YOUR MOUTH," RICARDO SAYS TO RICKY, WHO IS SITTING ON the counter next to the bathroom sink. Father and son are each holding a toothbrush with toothpaste on the bristles, and Ricardo is illustrating what to do next. He brushes his teeth up and down.

"Okay, there you go," Ricardo says as Ricky parts his teeth and jams the toothbrush in his mouth.

"On the side," the 33-year-old father says in a muffled voice, his mouth full of toothpaste. "Get your back teeth. You have to get all that candy."

They've just stepped out of the bathroom when Donna, who has been down in the kitchen, walks up the stairs.

"Hi, Ricky!" she yells.

The little boy jumps into her arms, hugs her tightly and kisses her cheek. He is animated, brimming with nervous energy, talking a mile a minute. His mother's reactions are slower, and after her smile fades, her face falls back to a flat expression. It appears a reversal of normal roles: It is the child here, not the parent, who provides the stimulation.

Downstairs in the living room are walls covered with Ricky's artwork. On the refrigerator, more samples. There's a traffic light, painted red, yellow and green, a one-way sign, a "Don't Walk" signal, a stop sign and a school crossing sign, all colored by little hands. "I keep all his work so he can see what he did," says Donna. "I don't throw none of his work away. I keep it in an envelope with memories."

"I DON'T KNOW WHERE I WAS WHEN I WAS BORN," DONNA SELBY Thornton explains matter-of-factly. "I was 8 or 9 when I went to an institution."

She's 38 now and works as a housekeeper at a local hospital. She's generally spare with emotions, though she'll playfully tackle her son, whom she often calls "Little Ricky." When she laughs, her high, round cheekbones swell even higher. But most of the time she's quiet, her face sour or blank. Her aloofness has become a source of jokes among her husband and friends.

Another topic of jokes is her height, but she's not sensitive about it. She's 4 feet 5 inches tall, though she looks much shorter because she's carrying extra pounds, which make her chin occasionally disappear into her neck.

"They tell me I came from Junior Village, to a foster home, to Forest Haven," she says, summing up her childhood travels from a District orphanage to the only family she remembers and, finally, to the deceptively named institution where she stayed for nearly 15 years. Along the way, she finished only the first grade. She never learned to read well and still gets confused when handling more than $20 at a time.

Of her natural parents, she says, "I don't remember them at all. My caseworker and I went downtown and tried to locate records, but they didn't leave nothing behind. It don't bother me, but once {in} a while it do. I try not to think about it."

She believes she was 4 when she went to live with the foster family. All she remembers about that part of her life is this: "The father couldn't control hisself. He would always hit his family. I think it was the alcohol. We had to run outside from him all the time."

Then one day, her foster mother, who was sickly, said that they had to go to court. "She said something about a psychologist and {that} I needed to learn more," Donna says.

But when court was over, Donna remembers, she was put on a yellow bus. "I saw these other kids on there, and I was crying and they were crying, and the next thing I know, we were at Forest Haven." She says all of this without a hint of emotion, as if she is bored with the story.

At Forest Haven, she was placed in Camellia Cottage, where she slept with about 20 other girls in a room with white brick walls. Donna remembers having nothing to call her own there because the girls wore identical clothes, and staff members used the same brush and comb on everyone's hair.

"All I had," she says, "was my life."

But she did have, at least for a while, a best friend, a girl named Barbara Hall, with whom she shared secrets and dreams -- until Barbara's untimely death. Even today, when Donna speaks of it, her head seems to involuntarily shake "no." "We was always sleeping in the same dormitory. We did all we could do together down there. We talked. It just shocked me when she died . . . She started vomiting up blood. They rushed her out. At night I asked the counselor how she was doing, and they said she died right there in that ambulance. I was crying and everything. When I went to bed that night, it was just like I could see her, could see her spirit. A lot of people don't believe in that, but I do.

"We went to her funeral. It was right on the grounds," says Donna. "I think some of her family came. Her grave was right down there. I used to go to the grave and talk to her all the time."

Donna Thornton has no roots from this earlier life. She has lost contact with the siblings from her foster family. "I had a foster sister who went into an institution like a Catholic school. We called each other a lot. I don't have her number no more," she says. "I had another foster sister named Irene and a brother named Butch . . . something. I forgot his name. They graduated from college and went on about their business."

She has not even one picture of herself as a child. When someone recovered a photo of her from Forest Haven, Donna lent it to someone else and never got it back.

In a way, her life really began with the photos that hang around the house where she lives now: a family portrait of Ricky with his parents, pictures of Ricky as an infant, as a toddler, as a preschooler. "I keep all his pictures," she says in her monotone. "I have a little white book I keep in my suitcase of all his baby pictures. We take pictures of him every year, just like at school."

"I REMEMBER THE FIRST DAY I GOT TO JUNIOR VILLAGE, I CRIED and cried," says Ricardo Thornton. "Coming out of the courtroom, I thought I had done something wrong. I met somebody who said they were a counselor. I didn't know what a counselor was. I was real sad."

Like his wife, he has a visual memory of being taken to a courtroom as a small child and being placed on a bus with other children. He remembers joining in the chorus of cries and experiencing the sickening feeling of abandonment.

Ricardo Thornton's language is more polished than that of his wife. While she stopped adult education classes several years ago, frustrated with her inability to comprehend some of the lessons, he continues special night classes in reading. Caseworkers who know Ricardo say that if he had not been institutionalized, he might be functioning on an average IQ level.

"My mother couldn't take care of us," Ricardo says, recalling how he, his sister and a brother were classified as mentally retarded and sent to Forest Haven. "My grandmother, aunt and uncle, almost the whole family, would come out on some Sundays and we'd have chicken and potato salad. I would dance and they'd say, 'Go, James Brown, go!' "
Like many of his friends who were institutionalized, he also has some horrid memories. Over his right eye, the coffee-colored skin is marred by a scar he says he received when "a counselor came and popped me on the face. His ring on his finger made me bleed bad. I went to the nurse. They gave me stitches. The counselor told other people I fell.

"My sister Earline died at Forest Haven," Ricardo recalls. "She was on Thorazine or some strong medication. She used to be drugged up a lot. She had broke her hand fighting. The staff told her to put ice on it. It hurt. They took her to get X-rays. They said that it was nothing. For two months it was just swollen, but they took her to the hospital and they put a cast on it. That was the last time I saw her. They told me she woke up with her hand hurting and they gave her medicine to cool her down, but she overdosed.

"They told me it was best not to see her. I went to school. It didn't bother me much, but I went to my grandmother's and everybody was crying. It really hurt then. The counselors wanted to know if I was going to sue. My aunts were saying, 'They killed your sister. They killed your sister.' " Forest Haven officials said that Earline Thornton's 1977 death certificate shows she died of natural causes as a result of a blood clot.

After Earline's death, Ricardo says, his family stopped visiting.

He "met" his mother once, he says, but he was so young he can't recall her eyes, her mouth or any of her features. "The second time I heard she had died and we went to the funeral," he says.

DONNA AND RICARDO MET WHILE THEY WERE TEENAGERS AT Forest Haven. They had mutual friends and would eye each other at dances and meetings there. Later, when he was about 17 and she was 22, they were allowed to leave the institution during the day to hold jobs. They worked together at a McDonald's.

"She would get on my case, saying things like, 'You better be on time,' " Ricardo says. "I said, 'I'm going to school; you better get someone else to work with you.' " He pauses. "I never thought we would be in deep love one day."

The friendship grew to include frequent shopping sprees, then entire Saturdays spent together -- at least until 11 p.m., curfew hour at Forest Haven.

But as the world changed its perceptions about mentally retarded people, Donna Selby, Ricardo Thornton and others in the institution were placed in residences outside Forest Haven, which is scheduled to close tomorrow as the culmination of a years-long effort to place retarded people in the community. Ricardo left in 1978 and Donna a year later. She was sharing an apartment with another former resident, while Ricardo lived in a group home. They continued dating and, in 1984, decided to marry. He was 25; she was 30.

"One day she proposed to me," he says. "She said, 'Let's get married.' I said, 'I know you're kidding. I'm not getting married until I'm sixty-something.' She said, 'By that time nobody's going to want your ass.' "
He gets a lot of mileage out of this story, which he often repeats, although the age at which he was going to marry sometimes changes. He always ends with the same line, and if Donna is within earshot, she chuckles.

"He wanted to try to have a baby and not be married," she says. "I wanted to have a marriage first because he might walk out on the baby."

Having a child, says Ricardo,"was always on my mind. I wanted to be like other people, have a family. It looks easy when you see other people do it. But it's not." Raising Ricky always seems to present them with new challenges. Recently, his day-care teachers diagnosed a problem in his language development and referred him to a speech therapist. The Thorntonstry to concentrate on helping him improve his speech, along with his manners, but sometimes their own limitations are painfully evident. One recent day, they were attempting to get him to properly greet a visitor named Patrice.

"Say hello to Ta-reese," they urged him, both mispronouncing the name even after several tries.

Ricky smiled, proudly mimicking his parents. "Hello, Ta-reese."

THE MEETING ROOM SEEMS TO BE IN PERpetual motion. In the audience are some young men and women who have uncontrollable spasms. Heads bob, bodies rock back and forth, and wheelchairs seem to never come to a complete stop. Donna, Ricardo and Little Ricky, who wears a bright red blazer, white shirt and navy pants, sit behind a table at the front of the room. They have come to speak at the Centers for the Handicapped in Silver Spring.

Donna and Ricardo are the darlings of those who support marriage for the mentally handicapped. To their peers among the handicapped and developmentally disabled, many with similar dreams of their own, the Thorntonsare, at the least, champions. They have appeared on "60 Minutes" twice, one segment featuring the birth of little Ricky.

Yet what really sets them apart from most mentally retarded couples, according to the health workers who know them, is that they have created a family life that closely emulates that of any other couple.

On this day, Ricardo introduces himself as "a former resident of Forest Haven," speaks a little about his life in institutions and recounts how he met and married "a girl named Donna." When he is asked about the potential problems of child rearing, his answers are disarmingly simple. "We try to give him a lot of love," he says. "We love him step by step, as he grows into different stages."

As his father talks, little Ricky is clutching a toy and having problems drinking from a plastic cup. His mother leans over to help him.

When someone asks Ricky's age, Ricardo passes the microphone to his son. Ricky's answer is greeted with thunderous applause.

"Does your son have disabilities?" a woman asks.

Ricardo: "We had that checked. No."

A man: "How do you feel if people make fun of you?"
Ricardo: "You can undo that by continuing to do your best. What it is is that they don't know what mental retardation is. We have to educate them."

Donna: "The next person that makes fun of you, tell them they ain't no better than you."

THE ODDS WERE STACKED AGAINST THIS MARRIAGE EVER happening. Even after overcoming myriad personal problems that came from growing up in an institution, Ricardo and Donna discovered that since they were both still wards of the District, they needed the city's permission to wed.

Several times, Ricardo requested approval, only to be told to wait. Then in 1984 he stood before the city's mental health commissioner and declared he was going to marry Donna Selby with or without permission of the government. When the commissioner asked him again to wait, Ricardo calmly but emphatically replied, "No way."

Eventually, the commissioner granted permission. About a hundred friends, including some raised in Forest Haven, attended the June wedding. Next there was a three-day honeymoon in Atlantic City. At first they lived in Ricardo's one-bedroom apartment, in a unit supervised by an agency that operates homes for developmentally disabled people. Then Donna found out she was pregnant.

"We planned that we wanted a baby," she says. "I didn't know I was pregnant until I noticed I was eating strange food, sleeping all the time and having backaches. I went to the doctor and asked. They said I had all the symptoms. They took a test.

"When they called me, I was all excited. When I told Ricardo,he wasn't. He was shocked. He acted like he didn't want this then. I told him he would get over it."

Ricardo admits that once Donna was actually pregnant, he was scared. "When they called and said she was having a baby today, I said, 'I have a basketball game.' "
It was Shirley Rees, Ricardo recalls, who asked him, "What's more important -- basketball or a baby?" Rees was an intake worker at Forest Haven when she met Donna. Now she is their friend and, as an employee of the Bureau of Community Services, the official liaison between them and the city government. Over the years, she has encouraged them to live independent lives and reveled in their triumphs. But sometimes late at night, when she rethinks her work, Rees second-guesses herself, wondering whether she hasn't helped Ricardo and Donna reach a point where they will be overwhelmed by their responsibilities.

"I was so excited about the marriage, I forgot about the normal progressions of life: You get married -- and have a baby," says Rees. To help them prepare, she set up parenting sessions with a local group. Donna and Ricardo were taught how to react in an emergency; what to do if the telephone rings and you're bathing your baby; how to put on a diaper; what it means when your baby cries.

Donna attended classes faithfully; Ricardo did not.

"I didn't think I really had to. I didn't think it was necessary," says Ricardo."I was more into hanging out . . . I learned. I try to stay home more now."

Donna had a difficult pregnancy, and medical complications required her to stay in bed for most of the nine months. Ricardo Thornton Jr. was born prematurely, on December 4, 1986, as the cameras from "60 Minutes" rolled. Rees remembers that the first thing Donna said after seeing her son was, "God has been good to me."

Rees recalls a small incident after the birth that impressed upon her the subtle sadness of a life of institutionalization. She and Donna were going to see Ricky at the hospital when, as Rees recalls, "Donna got me to the side and asked me quietly, 'Will my baby like me?' Not 'love.' She said 'like.' "
In the early days of parenthood, Rees says, Donna was afraid someone might take her child from her. "I don't know how many times, for two years after Ricky was born, Donna asked me, 'They aren't going to take my baby, are they?' Every little thing you and I take for granted -- if he cried, if he had a mark on him -- she wondered if we would take him away."

In those first months, Ricardo grew somewhat withdrawn and inattentive, and Donna became depressed. Rees set up marriage counseling and things improved.

"It's a lot of work," a wiser Ricardo says of being married. "It's fun once you learn it, and take time with the little one and the wife."

After six years of marriage and four years of parenting, they have both relaxed -- some. They live in a comfortable, two-story town house, where rent is subsidized by the District government and where a drop-in supervisor is always near. They also receive a $100 biweekly stipend for groceries and assistance with day-care expenses. But for the most part, they're independent.

Experience as parents has bred some confidence in both mother and father. Perhaps because of their own childhood experiences, they are apt to buy too many toys for their son and let him eat more cookies and potato chips than most. But they also follow timeless traditions set by countless parents before them. Ricardo took Ricky to the barbershop for his first haircut and takes him to the basketball court on weekends. The couple went to parents' meetings at Ricky's school, the Edward C. Mazique Parent-Child Care Center, which caters to families with special needs. Donna took a birthday cake and ice cream to the center so Ricky could celebrate his fourth birthday with classmates.

RICARDO WANTS MORE children, but Donna says "no way," claiming she's too old. About motherhood, she says: "It's been hard. It's been easy. It's been both."

They watch in awe as their son grows, but not without confusion and apprehension about how they will live up to their roles. This fall came a big step. Ricky started a public pre-kindergarten, and his parents faced new challenges. Even the basics proved difficult: They had the wrong date for the start of school, and they mistakenly assumed a bus would come for Ricky, not realizing that they would be responsible for getting someone to walk him to and from school while they are at work. At the day-care center, it all had been easier. There, they had received personal support from counselors and shared a special camaraderie with other handicapped parents who had similar burdens. But in a public school, they will be dealing with a much larger bureaucracy and will be less likely to get such help. They will also have to help their son with more difficult tasks.

"How am I going to do his homework?" Donna asks, considering a time when little Ricky will bring home assignments that she can't even read.

"I can ask the teachers to explain to me how I can help him. I can ask people to come and help him," she says. But she wonders if this will be enough as Ricky grows and learns. "How am I going to explain my situation to him? Everybody has a situation. I can only explain the way I've seen it in my life . . . He's gonna be hurt, but there's nothing we can do about it but go to a psychology or have someone explain it to him more.

"Just like I showed him that {"60 Minutes"} tape of when he was born. I explained it the best way I could. I'm thinking about him going to college and having his own family. If he has any problems he can always come to me or Daddy. I want him to have a good education and be smart. If he doesn't get far, we'll just have to push him."

At 7:30 a.m. on September 13, Ricardo awakens Ricky for his first day at Takoma Elementary. Donna has already gone to work, but before leaving, she laid out clothes for Ricky. And she reminded Ricardo to make sure that Bernard, a Forest Haven friend, will take care of Ricky after school until Donna arrives.

Ricky stirs in his blue football pajamas, but then he grunts and cries and crawls back under the covers. "Come on, Ricky," his father says, "Put your clothes on. We'll look at cartoons and have some apple juice . . . Come on now, gotta go to the new school!"
The phone rings. It's Donna, calling to make sure Ricardo and Ricky haven't gone back to sleep.

Ricardo reflects on the milestone of Ricky's first day and confesses his fear that someday soon his son will pass him by. "I read on a fourth-grade level," he says. "That's why I'm going to night school. To keep ahead of him."

Ricky finally is dressed, in jeans and a Chicago Bulls shirt. His father asks, "You want to go to your old school? Or the new school?"
"The new school!" Ricky says. They walk out hand in hand.

Patrice Gaines-Carter is a reporter on The Post's Metro staff.

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