Home Alone

After years of struggling to get her disabled son, Jimmy, into a reputable full-care facility, Micki Burton thought she'd found just the place. But she may have lost a son.

With Christmas still two days away, Micki Burton put on her best holiday dress and loaded her arms with presents. Waiting for her just seven miles away was her 47-year-old son, Jimmy Burgess, who lives in a group home in Plantation. Burton was excited, because, usually, she is allowed to spend only one hour with Jimmy every 90 days. But this was Christmastime, and the social worker who supervises the visits had granted her an hour and a half.

That sunny Tuesday afternoon, December 23, 1997, Burton and her friend Donna Metzger arrived promptly at 3:30. Jimmy, who suffers from cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and the side effects of several minor strokes, was slumped in his wheelchair in the living room. He wasn't alone. Sitting nearby were Shirley Hoffman, the social worker, and Sarah Silbert, the group home supervisor. A representative with the Tallahassee-based Advocacy Center for People With Disabilities was also in the room.

Within minutes wrapping paper was strewn across Jimmy's lap, and his mother was telling him stories about the relatives who'd sent him gifts, which included clothes, an electric shaver, a comforter, and a pair of Nike high-tops. But as each gift was unwrapped, Silbert announced that the Ann Storck Center, with which the group home is affiliated, takes care of all of Jimmy's basic needs. The gifts, she said, would have to be sent back.

"You got the sense that somebody didn't trust somebody," Metzger recalls. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, they're here, the visit's going to start, how nice.' It was more like, 'Let's take notes and watch each other.' It was very, very sad."

Sad, but true. The Ann Storck Center, a private, full-care facility for the physically and mentally disabled located in unincorporated Broward County near Fort Lauderdale, has a policy regarding the parents of its 84 residents: You can visit as often as you want. Burton is the exception. Soon after Jimmy was admitted in July 1995, her visits were limited to twice a month at 90 minutes each. Less than a year later, they were cut back to once a month. And in December 1996, Burton was told she would be allowed a single one-hour, supervised visit every 90 days.

In letters sent to Burton and her lawyers, Ann Storck officials list their reasons: Burton does not follow house rules; she makes frequent phone calls and asks questions of the staff that border on harassment; and after her visits Jimmy exhibits rebellious behavior that is both disruptive and a threat to his health.

Burton insists that she's simply being a good mother. "He needs me, because I know how to take care of him," she says. "They claim they take care of him, but they don't. It's just a job for them."

Whatever her opinions, Burton is in a bind. Three years ago she relinquished guardianship of her son in what, she claims, was an effort to get him into the best facility possible. To this day she's haunted by the near-fatal beating she claims Jimmy received in a state-run group home in Miami more than twenty years ago. If getting Jimmy into Ann Storck -- which she admits is a good facility -- requires giving up guardianship, so be it. Or so she thought.

Like any professional guardian, the not-for-profit South Florida Guardianship Program has final say on how to handle its wards. And in the case of Jimmy, it has completely sided with Ann Storck. In fact, officials from both organizations have gone so far as to suggest that Burton has a history of physically and sexually abusing Jimmy. It's true that Burton was convicted of physical assault in 1994, after she was seen slapping Jimmy in a restaurant. But no one has provided evidence in court of sexual abuse. Burton characterizes the allegations as the product of "sick minds" trying to "destroy a good Christian home."

At the age of 74, Burton is focused on rebuilding that home. For the last two years, she has fought tirelessly to get back her visitation privileges, which she hopes would include visits from Jimmy to her home. She's sought the aid of advocacy groups, politicians, even the White House. But so far, no luck.

"I would be perfectly happy with him in the group home if they would just let him come home once in a while and let me see him more often," Burton says. "They wouldn't even let him come home for Christmas, and that was the worst part. These people are just so cruel.... Not only is he a prisoner in his own body, he's a prisoner in that group home."

Micki Burton's house is filled with the things Jimmy had to leave behind when he went to Ann Storck. In her bedroom are Jimmy's custom-made, $4000 electric wheelchair; a walker with hand brakes; and a three-wheel bicycle he used to ride up and down the street. The Christmas presents sent back by Jimmy's social worker sit beneath a table, unwrapped and unused. Nearby are the presents from Christmas '96. Burton says that when she sent Jimmy a dozen yellow roses on his birthday last October, they too were returned.

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