Maurice Walker is 19 years old and he has been institutionalized for more than a third of his young life.
His grandmother, Emma James, is his biggest champion in the outside world. She feels that Maurice is caught in a system that she can’t understand. He is “a forgotten case,” she says. Emma is afraid that Maurice has simply has been “let go” by society.
Every week, Emma cooks and packs meals and carries the food across the street from her house in Milledgeville to Central State Hospital, where Maurice lives. It is only a short distance, but it may as well be a country away. That’s how far it feels.
Maurice was taken to Central State Hospital when he was 18. There, he spends part of his day at the Education Work Activity Center. And he dreams the dreams of every 19-year-old: A job, a girlfriend, or girlfriends; his family, especially his grandmother. A life worth living. He also talks about education, finishing high school so that he is ready for a job. Maurice has not been in a typical public education classroom since he was institutionalized.
When Maurice was five months old, he was left unattended in a vehicle, an experience that Emma feels is to blame for Maurice’s grand mal seizures, as they began approximately one year after the incident. Once Maurice entered public school in Baldwin County, school officials thought he had a behavior problem and sent him to the Medical College in Augusta, where he received medication for the seizures. The medication worked against his behavior, Emma believes, causing the school to place him in behavior and special education classes, where his behavior worsened.
Maurice has been in “the system” since he was seven years old, but his grandmother wants nothing more than for him to live with her permanently. She says she has found it difficult to make others understand that she wants him at home. Maurice lived at a residential treatment center for youth and adolescents who have behavioral and emotional issues, from the age of eleven to fourteen. He was readmitted when he was fifteen. During his stays at Laurel Heights, Maurice did not attend public school, and he only had weekend passes to visit his grandmother’s home.
Since Laurel Heights Hospital serves individuals under eighteen, on his eighteenth birthday, Maurice was discharged and transferred to Georgia Regional Hospital, despite Emma’s request that he come home to live with her. The Department of Family and Children Services (DFCS) and the staff at Laurel Heights were “adamant that he was not coming home,” she says. “It looks like the system doesn’t keep families together, they separate them,” Emma says.
Georgia Regional Hospital was deemed an inappropriate placement for Maurice since he was not in need of mental health services, and he was transferred to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville in October of 2004. The Regional Board intended to place Maurice at Central State Hospital, then discharge him with a Medicaid waiver for a bed in a group home setting that the board believed was available. That plan fell apart when the waiver had already been taken.
Emma was present at Maurice’s admission to Central State Hospital, although neither she nor Maurice was given the opportunity to express their thoughts. Maurice is no longer under the custody of DFCS, but Baldwin County DFCS is attempting to gain adult guardianship, even though Emma wants to be Maurice’s guardian. During the Central State admission, the judge mandated that Maurice stay for at least six months to get his anger under control. Emma says she doesn’t understand why he is institutionalized.
“Maurice doesn’t do anything when he’s here [visiting home] except play games and we have family cookouts. He’s no threat to the community,” Emma says. Maurice’s social worker at Central State Hospital agrees. If the correct supports were in place, Maurice would be an excellent candidate for community living, his social worker says.
Emma is frustrated that her grandson has not been allowed to visit home during his stay at Central State, especially since her home is across the street from the hospital’s campus. “He’s an adult” she says. “He has a right to voice his opinion” about visiting home or making other decisions.
Maurice says he wants to move back to his grandmother’s house, a place he considers ‘home’ after the transfers to and from various hospital settings. He also mentions his father and step-mother who live near his grandmother, as additional support systems, but Emma remains his biggest supporter and advocate.
Maurice’s mother (Emma’s daughter) wants what is best for Maurice and agrees that he should live with Emma. Maurice says he would live with his father and step-mother if he could not live with his grandmother, but Emma and the home where he grew up is his first preference. Maurice realizes that he would need to get a job if he lived in the community.
“Hopefully selling cars,” he says, smiling while thinking about driving and preparing cars for sale. “Fast cars,” he adds, but then changes his thought process and mentions finishing his education first. Upon admission to Central State Hospital, Maurice and his grandmother were told he was not “appropriate for public school.” Maurice says that he wants to go back to “regular high school for 12th grade.” Eventually, Maurice wants his own home, which he knows is feasible with the right supports. He says he would need some help cooking, but does know how to prepare simple meals. Maurice says that he would not need any help cleaning, but that medication management and money management — paying bills and budgeting— are areas in which he would need assistance.
Maurice dreams of getting his driver’s license and driving himself to and from school and a job. He says that if he were living in the community, he would “spend time with his girlfriends, dad, brothers, mom, uncle, and grandmother.” He wants to go shopping, to the movies, and to eat out occasionally. Maurice wants to be able to make his own decisions about with whom he shares his time, and he wants free reign over his daily activities.
Emma wants the best for her grandson and knows he would need resources to live in the community. “I would want to see Maurice, since he wants it so bad, to get that high school diploma, get a job, and take care of himself,” Emma says. “Eventually, I want him to have a family of his own,” she adds. She suggests he receive job-training and says that he would need “somewhere to go during the day since I work.” “You never know what a person can do until he’s given a chance. Maurice is not being given a chance,” Emma says, expressing her frustration. She feels people are not listening to Maurice’s wishes and she says she knows her grandson better than anyone. “It’s sad. Maurice is the one that got thrown away,” Emma adds.
Emma blames Maurice’s transition to several hospitals, instead of into the community, on the lack of preparation by the agencies involved in his case. “They weren’t working on Maurice’s case in advance,” she says, and on his 18th birthday, he had to be discharged from Laurel Heights Hospital immediately. “They didn’t prepare,” Emma says. “Just a forgotten case. He was let go,” she adds.
Emma gave the example of a family preparing to send their child to summer camp, and how the family begins registering the child several months before summer arrives. She believes that his caseworkers should have been planning for Maurice’s discharge since they knew he was going to turn 18 and would be required to leave Laurel Heights.
“I hope everything works out for Maurice. I’m hoping and praying,” Emma says. “I want him out. He shouldn’t have been in in the first place, not out there [Central State Hospital].” Maurice’s discharge plan on record at Central State indicates that the “treatment team agrees that with the appropriate supports in place, Mr. Walker would be an ideal candidate for community placement,” but that “the supports he needs to live safely in a community setting are not currently available.” His social worker believes Maurice would benefit from a vocational program, a job, and a job coach.
Emma, who describes her grandson as mild-tempered and funny, is concerned that Maurice’s behavior will decline the longer he lives in an institution. But, she says, “It takes a lot to break his spirit.” She pauses for a long minute, and then says, “I’d hate to see his spirit broken.” Emma is aware that the State pays for Maurice to live in an institution, even though she is willing to provide for him at home. She sums it up with the question that she wrestles with everyday: “They’ll spend $350 a day to keep a family apart. Why can’t they spend a little money to keep us together?”