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The Long Road to Independence

With Advocate's Assistance, Disabled Man Has a Room of His Own

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page A01

The thick file mailed to her home told Linda Tarlow the grim facts about the stranger she had just volunteered to visit. He was in his early fifties, with multiple disabilities, and had spent 40 years in Forest Haven, the District's wretched asylum for the mentally retarded.

Linda learned he was severely crippled by cerebral palsy, had been institutionalized at age 5 and was now in a group home. Considered mildly retarded, he weighed 57 pounds and could not walk, feed himself or eat solid food.

Roger Butt celebrates Christmas Eve with Linda Tarlow, her husband, Alvin Rosenbaum, and his son, Sam, in Roger's new apartment. The marble game on the table was one of Roger's presents. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

And he couldn't speak.

At their first meeting, one evening in February 2000, Linda found him in bed, the covers pulled up to his chin, the room lighted only by a television. She brought him a plant and a Valentine. His mouth opened wide in excitement.

"All I can see is your head," she teased. "Is there a body under those covers? Can I see it?"

He nodded yes. She pulled back the sheet to see a tiny figure in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms, his legs spindly, his hands bent under at the wrists, almost parallel to his forearms.

Linda stayed less than an hour but promised to return in two weeks. She gave him photos of herself, her house and her cats -- "to share some of my life with him." Another volunteer had stopped coming after a few visits, but Linda planned to stick around.

The admission form that consigned Roger Sherman Butt to Forest Haven in 1951 called him "an idiot." That was the way medical authorities talked about the mentally disabled in those days. He arrived at the 250-acre compound in Laurel as a fragile child who used his shoulders to move around on the floor and cried "lustily" the day he was left at the institution.

Roger's parents had a hard time taking care of him. His mother moved out; his father, following a doctor's advice, committed him to Forest Haven.

It was a notoriously neglectful, abusive institution. Some staff members beat residents. The place smelled of urine and feces; many who lived there wore diapers and banged their heads against the walls for attention.

Roger's father came by occasionally, and for a time, his mother made monthly visits. But by 1980, she was the only living parent and had visited once in the previous four years.

At Forest Haven, according to what Linda learned from files and former employees, Roger grew to adulthood in his crib, left out of education and other programs. There was no stocking at Christmas, no party on his birthday. He could move both arms, his left hand and his neck, and he had tremendous upper-body strength. But only after surgery in his thirties could he sit in a wheelchair.

As an adult, Roger could read his name but nothing else. He absorbed a lot from television, recognizing theme songs and delighting in police shows. In various picture exercises, he tested in the 5- to 13-year-old range. He had a good memory and communicated by nodding or blinking yes or no to questions. Although he could not speak, he could laugh and make other sounds to signal happiness or displeasure.

In 1991, when Roger was 45, a federal court shut down Forest Haven. The city moved Roger and seven other men, most of them in wheelchairs, to a group home in Southeast Washington.

On weekdays, a van took Roger to his day program at United Cerebral Palsy, where he saw friends from Forest Haven and learned about money and how to tell time. By late 1999, his life for nearly 50 years had been in an institution or a group home, with rare trips to the circus or a social club.

What Roger wanted, more than anything, was to go out.

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