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The Long Road to Independence

Linda was in her mid-forties and getting a late start on a legal career in December 1999 when a front-page article in The Washington Post horrified her. It said that dozens of people were dying under troubling circumstances in the District's poorly run group homes for the mentally retarded.

The article described the neglect and incompetence that contributed to the deaths; it was part of a series that led to reforms. Concerned that the mentally disabled "were dying in my back yard," Linda logged on to a Web site discussion with the reporter, Katherine Boo.


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)

In the online chat, Boo talked about D.C. Superior Court's Volunteer Advocates Association, a watchdog program that matches mentally disabled wards of the city with private citizens. The court-appointed volunteers agree to visit someone in the city's care twice a month and report back. But there are only about 300 advocates for nearly 1,200 people who need one.

Linda signed up, even though she had just started a job at a downtown law firm. At this point, her life was all about billable hours. She was a bit dismayed when Roger's file arrived at her Silver Spring home. Her first reaction: "I don't have time to read all this!"

But she knew she could help.

A native of Hingham, Mass., Linda had worked as a nurse's aide the summer after high school. She attended college for a semester and held a series of jobs, including five years as an assistant in homes and programs for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill.

She had experience with people like Roger. She had a lot in common with him, too. Both had miserable childhoods. Linda had been unhappy in school, where she felt she didn't fit in, and at home, where there was family violence. "I would call the police, that was my job," she said. "I was a lost kid."

At 31, she went back to college, then law school, a path that led her to the D.C. area. For years, Linda had been consumed by her work. Now she wanted to get more involved in the community.

She figured visiting Roger was a good place to start.

On a crisp Saturday, about a month after they met, Linda took Roger to the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The trip -- his first ride on the Metro, his first visit to the Mall -- was both scary and exhilarating. He loved the military exhibits and the historical planes hanging from the ceiling.

They ended up in the gift shop. Roger, then 53, eyed several items but was visibly agitated when Linda picked up an airplane set and glow-in-the-dark stars and took them to the cash register.

"He didn't have any money, and he knew you needed money to buy things," she said. "When I paid, he was stunned. He couldn't imagine I would buy something for him."

Suddenly, a man who owned next to nothing discovered shopping . A few weeks later, at Filene's Basement in Friendship Heights, Roger wanted Linda to buy him shower curtain hooks shaped like fish. Because he didn't have a shower, she said no. Roger yelled, making such a scene that Linda took him outside.

"I can't have you screaming in stores like that," she scolded. "That's not how people behave."

Back at the home, as Linda was saying good-bye, Roger spit a mouthful of lemonade at her.

But she came back.


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