A 73-year-old deaf woman has been confined for 55 years at the District's facility for the mentally retarded -- living out a "wasted lifetime" after she was "erroneously" determined to be substantially mentally retarded, according to allegations in a $5.5 million lawsuit filed yesterday in D.C. Superior Court on the woman's behalf.
Nearly 48 years elapsed between the day in 1930 when that psychological test set the course of her life and the date of her next psychological evaluation, the civil lawsuit against the District government charged.
For 51 years, her commitment to the institution was not reviewed by a court, and today, she remains in an institution where she does not belong, isolated among people who cannot communicate with her, her lawyers said.
The lawsuit, filed by court-appointed attorneys and a legal advocacy group for the deaf, is one of a handful in the nation to attack what is believed to be a widespread problem for the hearing impaired, according to attorney Marc P. Charmatz.
"How does this happen?" said Charmatz, representing the National Association of the Deaf Legal Defense Fund. "It happens because people make the assumption that the hearing impaired suffer from other disabilities. That is not necessarily the case."
A spokesman for the D.C. Department of Human Services, which runs Forest Haven, the facility in Laurel, where the woman has spent most of her life, said he could not comment because he had not yet seen the lawsuit.
The suit seeks proper treatment and services for the woman, identified in court papers only as Jane Doe, and her placement in a nursing or senior citizens home.
It also seeks $5.5 million in damages for the alleged violation of her rights under the U.S. Constitution and mental retardation laws.
According to the suit, a psychologist brought in by her lawyers earlier this year found her IQ to be more than double the level found in 1930, a performance the psychologist called "quite remarkable."
From Forest Haven records, the lawyers have pieced together Jane Doe's life and laid it out in a lawsuit, which makes the following allegations.
For a period in her youth, Jane Doe attended the Maryland School for the Deaf and Blind, "where she adjusted well" and learned sign language.
Her mother died when she was 13 and her father was financially unable to care for her.
The next year, 1925, the Juvenile Court in D.C. made her a ward of the Board of Children's Guardians.
For a time, she was placed in the home of a foster mother, who complained "of her interest in men and her stubbornness," and in 1929 a psychological exam was ordered.
The psychologist, "who lacked the skills necessary to properly communicate with and test" her, made this pronouncement: "She is a cretinoid type, repulsive looking, and is reported to show immoral tendencies with other girls. With her sensory defects and mental deficiency, she is entirely incapable of getting along in the world. The only institution which is available in the District is the one for mental defectives."
Doe was sent to the District Training School, Forest Haven's predecessor, where she was examined again in 1930, found to have an IQ of 34 and determined to be substantially retarded. There she remained, where the "staff . . . had no skills to communicate with a deaf person" and where she was given no training for the deaf.
Still, her record, as far back as 1931, was replete with examples of reading and writing skills that belied the earlier test results.
In 1966, Jane Doe suffered a stroke, and now she is partly paralyzed and must use a wheelchair, one of her lawyers said.
In 1978, after a federal lawsuit, improvements were ordered in care and treatment for all residents at Forest Haven, and Jane Doe received new psychological evaluations and was given a court-appointed attorney.
"It would be easy to say she fell through the cracks and was lost," said Charmatz.
"But I'm not sure that's correct. They recognized all along they had a hearing impaired individual. They just never communicated with her in any way she could understand."