Home Alone

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.  

When she has visitors, Burton puts out Danish and a pot of coffee. Her gait is a bit stiff, but otherwise she is fit and alert. She's all smiles as she shows off some of Jimmy's paintings, but when she recalls another Christmas spent without him, she quickly sheds tears. Looking around her cozy home, she can't understand what harm it would do to let Jimmy pay a visit.

"If he could just see all his things still here, his clothes and things, then he'd know I still wanted him, and he would feel so much better," she insists.

Born in North Carolina and raised in Virginia, Burton considers herself a good Christian woman who knows what's best for Jimmy. "There's no more of a pleasant woman than I've ever met," says Steven Berzner, her attorney. "She's just nice to deal with. Look, she's a parent. I have two kids and I can only imagine how I would be in her situation. I don't blame her what she's doing."

Considering what she's been through, few would. When Jimmy was born in 1950 in Danville, Virginia, he seemed healthy. But throughout his childhood, he showed signs of physical problems, which were originally misdiagnosed. When Jimmy was eight years old, however, doctors finally determined that he had cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disorder caused by brain damage, and a minor case of spina bifida, a spinal cord ailment that prohibits full use of the legs and causes headaches.

Jimmy's father, known as "J.T." Burgess, left the family after Jimmy was diagnosed.

"He claimed he couldn't handle the trauma of having a child that was sick," Burton recalls. "But that's a cop-out. I have no respect for parents who drop their kids off someplace because they are sick. That's when they need you. They need you more than ever."

For a few years, Burton tried to care for Jimmy at home with the help of her mother and day nurses. But by 1965, when the family moved to Florida, it was obvious that Jimmy was in need of at least part-time institutionalized care. That year Burton admitted him to Sunland Center, a state-run group home in Miami. She claims that, in 1974, Jimmy was beaten so badly by security guards that he was in a coma for six weeks. He also suffered several minor strokes, which landed him in a wheelchair, she says.

After her experience in Miami, Burton cared for Jimmy at home while trying to get him into other facilities in Florida and Virginia. In 1983 he was finally admitted to another state-run facility, this one in Gainesville, where he lived for nearly ten years. While Jimmy was living there, Burton visited often and sponsored picnics and parties for her son and his friends. She also brought him home for visits that lasted up to a week at a time.

Since being admitted to Ann Storck in July 1995, however, Burton has only had about fifteen short visits with her son, and Jimmy has not been allowed to go home.

"Maybe they've run out of patience with her," Berzner guesses. "They don't like her because she calls all the time. I believe they like parents who come for visits and don't ask any questions."

A phone call or two every week is one thing, but officials at Ann Storck claim that Burton's almost daily calls verged on harassment. Whenever there was a thunderstorm, she'd call to make sure all of the residents were indoors. Or she'd ask: Is Jimmy getting enough orange juice? Are his sweaters warm enough? Is he taking all of his medicine? These days Burton isn't allowed to call Ann Storck. All of her questions and concerns must be put in writing.

Even Burton's friends from the First Church of God on Andrews Avenue in Fort Lauderdale admit that she can be pushy, but they feel that her persistence is warranted. Fred Kaufman, the attorney who helped her get Jimmy into Ann Storck, offers this theory: "What I learned from my involvement with Micki Burton is that the umbilical cord is not severed. She just won't let go. That's all she's got in her life."

Burton's daughter, Barbara Hogan, who is six years older than Jimmy and lives in Virginia, would not be interviewed for this story. Her husband, Melvin Hogan, would say only, "We're not gonna have nothing to do with anything her momma does."  

Burton claims that, like many others, her daughter and son-in-law have very little patience for people with disabilities, a fact she's grown used to over the years.

What she's not used to is the tricky issue of guardianship. Broward County is home to thousands of legal guardians and almost as many reasons for why they are necessary. In all cases, however, a guardian is approved of or appointed by the court when a person cannot care for him- or herself. Mental incapacity, severe physical disability, and old age are among the reasons. In most cases legal guardians are family members, such as parents, spouses, or adult children. A third-party guardian, such as the South Florida Guardianship Program (SFGP), becomes involved when the next of kin gives up guardianship or is found incapable of providing adequate care.

When Ann Storck and the SFGP cut Burton's visits to once a month in May 1996, she pleaded with SFGP's president, Kathleen Phillips, to change her mind. Phillips refused, and Burton got Berzner to petition the court in December 1996 for more visits. Broward County Circuit Court Judge Mel Grossman denied Burton's request, saying visitation issues ought to be taken up with the guardian, according to Berzner. Three days later, he says, Burton's visits with her son were reduced even further, to the one-hour supervised visits, because of a "strong correlation between increased incidents of aggression and inappropriate behavior by Jimmy" and Burton's visits, according to a letter from Pari-Ann McDuffie, Jimmy's caseworker at SFGP.

"Why, after the motion was denied, did they cut visitation back even further?" Berzner wonders. "Look, I know she can be a pain in the butt. She can be an overbearing woman. But the center has to step back. I think they are penalizing her for trying to get more visitation."

By law SFGP as guardian is permitted to do whatever it deems necessary to protect Jimmy from visits considered harmful to his welfare. Only a probate court can determine if what a guardian does is inappropriate, so a parent's only avenue of appeal is a judge. Because Grossman has denied Burton's request in the past, Berzner is wary of trying again.

But James A. Pearson, a Hollywood attorney who specializes in guardianship law, believes another court hearing may work. "That change to 90 days might be enough to shock the conscience of the court," he says. "I think this 90-day business is just punitive. Maybe they [Ann Storck and the SFGP] are saying it takes him 89 days to get over her visits. But that's their job, to deal with it [Jimmy's rebellious behavior], and unless she's harming him, they should deal with it. I've never heard of such a thing."

Pearson says parents in a custody case often try to claim that visits with the noncustodial parent are traumatic for a child. "But the court has said over and over that, 'We don't care. You let them see the other parent. No matter what you say, it is better for a kid to see their parent than not to.'"

Burton's relationship with Jimmy isn't so clear-cut. Since her visitation was restricted, she has written letters to numerous advocacy groups and politicians in Florida and Washington, D.C., including President Clinton. Several Florida senators replied with sympathetic letters, and her concerns were forwarded to the Department of Children and Families (formerly the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services).

But the only concrete response, one that points up the problems with Burton's case, has come from the Tallahassee-based Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities. On Jimmy's behalf, Burton first petitioned the group's Fort Lauderdale office, which declined to help, citing, in a letter, "numerous allegations of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by you towards your son" that have been documented for "more than twenty years." But Burton has never been found guilty of any sexual abuse, and not one of her attorneys is aware of any formal charges levied against her.

Burton later tried the Advocacy Center's Orlando office for help, and this time around Brenda Marcellino, unit monitoring director, agreed to investigate. She visited Jimmy last August and sent out an attorney to observe Burton's Christmas visit with Jimmy.

"Jimmy told me that he would like to see his mother more often," Marcellino said. Because the Advocacy Center concerns itself with the rights of disabled people, and not their parents, Marcellino was hesitant to talk about specifics in Jimmy's case, including the sexual-abuse allegations. "I care about something good happening for Micki and Jimmy," she said. "If I say something in the paper, that will interfere with my ability to help them. Let's just say I'm hopeful."  

On the issue of sexual abuse, Phillips was more forthright, however. During a brief telephone conversation, she said that, in the past, Burton has sent Jimmy cards more appropriate for a lover than a son. She also claims lipstick was found on Jimmy's underwear after one of Burton's visits, and that she once sent him a pair of jogging pants with the crotch ripped out. Berzner says he saw the cards and doesn't concur with Phillips' interpretation. He adds that when he asked to inspect the clothing in question, SFGP attorney Robert Trinkler told him the agency did not have them.

Micki's friends and fellow churchgoers who have stood by her throughout her crusade dismiss the notion that Burton's behavior toward Jimmy has been questionable.

"There were some allegations made against Micki that I will never believe," says Bill Jerrils, a retired state minister for the Church of God in Fort Lauderdale.

"She's a good, religious woman," insists Mary Welchel, who helped Burton care for Jimmy for two years in Burton's home. "They had a good relationship, and people want to say that's sex. That just makes me sick. She certainly wasn't abusing him. I never seen any abuse there."

Physical, not sexual, abuse lies at the root of Burton's problems. In Gainesville, in 1992, she was seen slapping Jimmy in a Bob Evans restaurant. Based on that incident, she was convicted of physical assault in 1994, and that's when the then-Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) stepped in. It petitioned the court to have Burton removed as guardian of Jimmy. Just before the final hearing on that case in August 1994, Kaufman, Burton's attorney at the time, offered to become Jimmy's guardian. Burton agreed as long as she could continue to care for Jimmy at home.

But home life wasn't ideal. Neighbors often complained to HRS and the sheriff's office about loud fights between mother and son. Paramedics were called more than 100 times to help lift Jimmy back into his wheelchair after he slid out in defiance of his mother's wishes, according to Lewis Fishman, an attorney who successfully defended Burton in another physical assault case, this time in civil court over an incident that took place January 22, 1995.

On that day Burton called the police to complain about a neighbor who was yelling obscenities at her and Jimmy, presumably in response to one of Jimmy's outbursts. Sheriff's Deputy S. Greg Spieker claims, in a police report, that when he arrived, he peered into Burton's house and saw her choking Jimmy. Spieker called HRS, and, by the time an investigator arrived, Burton had gathered several friends as witnesses. Burton and her friends claim that the HRS investigator examined Jimmy, found no evidence of abuse, and refused to file a report. Still, Jimmy was taken to Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, where he was treated for seizures that night. A week later HRS moved him to Landmark Learning Center in Miami, the facility that had replaced Sunland Center. Burton was not happy, but her attorney, then Jimmy's guardian, was.

"When I learned he was there, I thought that was a good thing," Kaufman says. "She couldn't handle the situation, and there was no other place for him."

Jimmy stayed in Landmark until a bed for him opened at the Ann Storck Center that summer. The only catch was that Jim McGuire, executive director of the facility, would not accept an attorney as Jimmy's guardian, according to Kaufman, who wanted out of his agreement with Burton anyway. So when McGuire recommended that a third-party guardian, such as the SFGP, take over, Kaufman agreed, as did Burton, who was desperate to get Jimmy out of Miami.

"I would have done anything on God's earth to get him out of there [Miami]," Burton says. "I signed not because I wanted to, but because I had no choice."

Besides, Phillips assured her she would be allowed to see Jimmy as often as she wanted, Burton says. So she told Kaufman to go ahead and sign over guardianship.

Founded by Phillips in 1991, the South Florida Guardianship Program is a not-for-profit organization, and as such, at least half of its cases are pro bono, including Jimmy's. As guardian SFGP oversees Jimmy's health care at Ann Storck, files annual financial and medical reports with the court, and protects Jimmy's property, in accordance with Florida Statute chapter 744.

Pearson says he knows of a few other cases in which SFGP is guardian and has prevented family members from seeing their relatives.

"It [SFGP] has built a reputation of being an upstanding place, a good place that takes good care of wards," Pearson says. "Judges tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes down to who's telling the truth.  

"Whether the people who she [Phillips] feels she has to protect her wards against are family or not, she will go to the nth degree to do that. And it's pretty tough to go up against her in a [court] system that knows her so well and believes in her reputation."

Fort Lauderdale attorney Debra Rochlin found that out the hard way. She battled SFGP for the rights of an elderly woman she says SFGP placed in a psychiatric hospital because her apartment was messy. She disagrees that SFGP does good work.

"They should be hung out to dry," says Rochlin, who refused to take Burton's case because of the long hours and promise of frustration. "I'm afraid to take them on again. Every time I take them on, I get myself in worse trouble in the [legal] community."

Removing a guardian is never easy. Proof of abuse or the violation of a ward's rights is required. Burton's limited visitation privileges may be raising some eyebrows, but it probably wouldn't be enough to get SFGP removed as guardian, says Burton Young, an attorney from North Miami Beach who chairs the Florida Bar's Family Rules Committee.

"If you don't like what the guardian is doing, you can always petition the court," Young says. "But unless you can prove the guardian is unfit, it's unlikely the court will remove them."

Although the SFGP is Jimmy's legal guardian, Burton and her attorney claim that Ann Storck and its executive director, Jim McGuire, call the shots. Wedged between Davie and Fort Lauderdale, just west of State Road 7 on SW 43rd Way, the Ann Storck Center seems serene enough on the outside. Inside, the walls in McGuire's office are covered with plaques and commendations, and his "desk" -- a plank stretched across two filing cabinets -- is lined with photographs of the smiling children he's helped care for over the years. The facility is named after Ann Storck, who started a program for physically and mentally disabled children in her Fort Lauderdale home in 1954. By 1972 her operation had expanded enough to demand the construction of a $250,000 building, which is part of the current facility. Further expansion in 1981 resulted in the Ann Storck Center, and McGuire was brought in to run the organization.

Overall, the full-care facility serves 270 children and adults and offers a variety of programs, including preschool, workshops, and art classes. Eighty-four of the facility's clients are full-time residents like Jimmy, who lives in one of two group homes. At the Ann Storck Center is a state-of-the-art "safe" playground, shaded by a huge banyan tree. Inside, exercise and therapy rooms are filled with new equipment.

Ann Storck was given high scores in its most recent review, in 1996, by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities in Arizona. About 95 percent of its $8.5 million budget in fiscal year 1996 was public money from sources such as Broward County, the Broward County School District, and Medicaid, the federal insurance system for the indigent. The rest comes from contributions, grants, and gifts.

"We feed upon the public trough and depend upon the kindness of strangers," McGuire said.

During a recent tour guided by McGuire, staff members were cheerful and friendly. As McGuire introduced some of the facility's younger clients, he touched their faces and talked to them about their achievements over the years. They responded with smiles and laughter.

McGuire would not, however, introduce Jimmy Burgess. After being asked several times, he finally pointed to Jimmy, who could be seen through a plate glass window in a room McGuire said was off limits. Slumped in his wheelchair, his back to the window, Jimmy was slowly inserting nails into a pegboard, 99 in all. He receives a weekly paycheck for helping a manufacturer count and box the nails.

"Jimmy's been through hell," McGuire asserted. "This guy finally has a quality of life. I wish people would let him have his experience.... You are just going to hurt somebody by doing this [article]."

He dismissed Burton's claims that the center doesn't want her involved in Jimmy's care. But he also referred to reports, which he would not provide, that prove that Jimmy's visits with his mother are too disruptive.

"We do not separate moms and sons," McGuire insisted. "We promote families. And that is universal with one exception -- universal in sixteen years of operation, with one exception."

Brenda Marcellino, of the Advocacy Center for Persons With Disabilities, is hopeful that Burton and McGuire will settle their differences and arrange for increased visitation. But McGuire had this to say: "Gimme a break. I'll win the lotto before that happens."  

Sitting on Burton's kitchen table is an application she plans to fill out and send to the ACLU. Young, of the Florida Bar, says it may be her only hope. But Burton's worried that she won't answer the questions well enough to get her case accepted. She points out that the details of her case are supposed to be written in a five-by-seven-inch space.

Burton's options are few. Berzner says that, because a circuit court judge has already demanded she deal directly with the SFGP on this issue, another legal challenge would be fruitless. The best thing she can do now is lay low, he suggests, and hope that a group like the Advocacy Center can negotiate an arrangement.

As frustrated as she is, Burton is hopeful that Jimmy will return home for a visit someday. If he does, she's ready for him. His clothes still hang in a little, white, Formica armoire in the living room, and his toiletries are still neatly lined in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. In the freezer in the kitchen are rolls of sausage. Jimmy's favorite meal, she says, is sausage, gravy, and biscuits.

"Jimmy's been my life for so long, and I enjoy it because I can see how much he enjoyed it when I did anything for him," Burton says. "It's just like losing a husband or a child in death -- so all-of-a-sudden."

Because of his strokes, Jimmy's speech is difficult to understand. When Burton asks him simple questions, he either answers with a "yeah" or "naw" or stutters in an attempt to complete a sentence. For a while now, Burton has been taping telephone calls, to protect both herself and Jimmy, she explains.

In one of the taped conversations, Jimmy asks his mother when she'll be stopping by for a visit. "When Shirley lets me," Burton answers, and Jimmy is left speechless for a few moments.

During a phone call last October, Burton asked her son what he'd like for his birthday. "H-h-hom-m-e," he answered. Then, he added: "M-m-miss you."

"I miss you, too, sweetheart," Burton said. Then the tears started to come.

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