A photo of Daniel Bergin was included in a Monday Metro section story about an Arlington program for the mentally retarded. Though he is in the program, Bergin suffers from neurological damage that has affected his motor skills rather than his mental development. (Published 7/22/87)

Every weekday, Laverne Kenney and the three members of her crew wait outside their homes for a van that will take them to work in Arlington's

Ballston neighborhood.

Wearing bright orange safety vests, they mow grass, clear garbage and sweep the sidewalks. "I pick trash up, I pick dirt up, I help rake," said Kenney, 22, with a confident smile.

Kenney and her colleagues, most of whom are classified as severely mentally retarded, spent years in care programs that gave them little contact with the outside world. Their work may lack glamor, but it is a point of pride that brings them in touch with the community.

The "supported employment" program run by the Arlington Community Services Board offers retarded adults such as Kenney a combination of continuing job training and counseling that is to provide them with emotional support and everyday social experience.

Virginia is one of 27 states that have received grants from the U.S. Department of Education to start supported employment programs, said Janet W. Hill, director of the state Office of Supported Employment, a division of the state Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services. Maryland has been given a similar grant.

Virginia's $2.5 million grant covers 1985 to 1990 and is earmarked for demonstration projects that localities eventually will fund.

The state's goal is to move about half the approximately 5,000 people currently in day care programs for the retarded or mentally ill into supported employment within five years, Hill said.

But the approach has engendered debate regionally and nationally. One enthusiastic expert likens it to the civil rights movement, saying it will "liberate" the severely mentally retarded from day care centers. But some parents are appalled at what they see as a campaign to push their handicapped children into a world where they cannot cope.

The conflict is vividly illustrated in Arlington, where the Community Services Board wants to increase supported employment programs and in the process cut back a day care program for retarded adults.

The changes are strongly opposed by parents with children in a day care program run for the county by the private, nonprofit Woodmont Center for Vocational Services. The North Arlington center serves 31 clients who range in age from 23 to 65 and work at tasks such as making doormats and stuffing envelopes.

The services board, which oversees county- and state-funded programs for the mentally retarded, wants to cut the county-funded number of clients it refers to the center from 31 to 13 by next March. Most of the other clients would be shifted to supported employment programs.

Along with the Ballston crew is a group that works as shop helpers at Koons Ford in Falls Church, and a new clerical support crew soon will be employed at the county courthouse.

Parents who have objected say their children need and enjoy the more sheltered environment at Woodmont and that their concerns have been treated insensitively.

"We don't feel our son is emotionally and mentally capable of going out into the work place," said Martha S. Byers, whose son Ellis has been a client of the center for 15 years. Social service officials never personally contacted the family to explain the proposed changes, Byers said. Other parents say they were never consulted about the changes. "We feel like we've been kept in the dark," said one parent.

Adding to the parents' distress are bureaucratic concerns.

As do many of the clients at Woodmont, Barbara S. Woodward's son Douglas, 31, lives in a nonprofit group home in Arlington that requires his placement in some type of day program as a condition for living in the shared quarters. If her son, who has had an unsuccessful job stint, is shifted into the new work program but fails at the job, Woodward fears, he also may lose a place to live.

"Woodmont is a place for our sons and daughters who fall through the cracks," she said.

Another consideration for the parents is their own advanced age. Many are in their sixties, seventies and eighties. "We've been through the mill," said Woodward, who describes herself as "just under 60" and "one of the babies" among the parents.

"My son is in a good group home and in a nice program, and I think if I drop dead tomorrow he's going to be well taken care of. Now everything gets all stirred up," she said.

Gary A. Boyd, executive director of the Community Services Board, said the parents' fears are unfounded. The board is committed to maintaining a program, although a much smaller one, at the Woodmont Center, he said. If a candidate for the work program cannot make the adjustment, another placement will be found for him or her, though not necessarily back at Woodmont, Boyd said.

In response to parents who say they were surprised by the program changes, Boyd said they have been informed over the past four years "at parent meetings, large and small, of the philosophic shift to supported employment." Parents will be notified and consulted before their child is placed in the job program, he said.

However, the nature of some of the tasks, such as picking up litter and doing some janitorial work, has disturbed some parents. "I'm sure "We got people into vocational settings and said yes, they can learn and will show up. {Now} we've realized we can do this in the community."

as I can be that I would not agree for {my daughter} to be included in any enclave to clean WCs or johns," said one parent in a letter to the Arlington County board.

To Boyd, the type of work offered is irrelevant. "The dignity of the work . . . is more important than its alleged blue-collar aspect," he said.

Francis G. Short, whose daughter Francine is part of the Ballston maintenance crew, said the type of work was not as important as her becoming "a productive citizen."

"I don't care what she's doing. I wanted her to earn a living. She's paying federal and state taxes now," Short said.

His daughter earns about $70 every two weeks. At the Woodmont Center, she earned about $5 every two weeks, he said. The new program allows his daughter "to get around, do different projects," said Short. At the center, "she was sitting in a chair every day. She wasn't learning anything. She'd gone as far as she could go."

Also, proponents argue that supported employment programs cost less than more conventional care centers. In 1985, the average annual cost in Virginia for a client in a day activity center was $5,900; the average annual cost for a supported employment client was $3,100.

A supported employment program also may lead to improvements in physical health and communications skills, according to a 3 1/2-year study conducted by Paul H. Wehman, a professor of special education and rehabilitative medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University/Medical College of Virginia.

"We have an accumulation of research that shows that people with severe physical, mental and emotional problems can work competitively in real jobs if they are given job coaches and job site support," said Wehman, whose study examined the responses of 25 participants.

To Hill, supported employment is a natural extension of past changes in the treatment of the retarded. From assuming that the retarded could do little, "we got people into vocational settings and said yes, they can learn and will show up. {Now} we've realized we can do this in the community," she said.