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Autistic Boy's Case a Question of Justice

After he killed a toddler, neighbors demanded he be sent away. His family, other autism activists resisted. A unique agreement seeks to protect both the boy and the community.

September 21, 1996|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MILPITAS, Calif. — Within the Bay Area's tight-knit community of parents with autistic children, Marguerite Garretty has been revered as an inspiration, even a hero.

Garretty, who has been her autistic grandson's legal guardian since he was 6, is a passionate advocate of "mainstreaming"--involving the disabled in the world as much as possible. She dreamed that one day her grandson, who also suffers from mental retardation and seizures, would be able to fend for himself.

Under her care, the boy learned to read and write, to communicate with others and to ride a bicycle. For many, Garretty, her husband, Keith, and their grandson were proof that a loving family environment could help even the most severely handicapped child develop beyond expectations.

Then, on a warm night in June, Garretty's 12-year-old grandson allegedly beat a toddler she was baby-sitting so severely that the child died the next day of massive brain injuries.

Neither the Garrettys nor the parents of 18-month-old Alexsis Henckolas, who also was suspected of being autistic, have spoken publicly since the attack. But friends say the two families, who met when a parent support group referred the Henckolases to the Garrettys for assistance, still talk frequently.

In the wake of the killing, a tug of war erupted among law enforcement officials, frightened neighbors and advocates who feared that what had happened would spark a backlash against all autistic children and efforts to help lead them to normal lives.

Neighbors said they feared the boy and wanted him removed from their comfortable tract near San Jose. An assistant district attorney quickly decided not to prosecute, but considered committing the boy to a mental institution.

After months of painful debate and legal maneuvering, a unique, court-brokered solution emerged, one that no one can say with certainty will achieve the twin goals of protecting the boy and the community.

If the agreement is ratified, as expected, in a Santa Clara court this month, the state will allow Keith, a systems analyst, and Marguerite, a retired executive secretary, to continue raising their grandson even as he is declared a danger to himself and others and made a ward of the state.

In return, they will abandon their dream of an ordinary life for him. His movements will be severely limited and closely monitored indefinitely. His behavior will be reviewed by the court and should he again behave violently, the state can commit him to an institution.

"My focus was to try to take care of any risk to the community, while at the same time not doing any further damage to the boy," said Kurt Kumli, the Santa Clara County assistant district attorney who handled the case.

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Neighbors say they think the solution can work. The Garrettys are described as resigned, while advocates for autistic children say they are pleased the boy will remain at home but worry that the severe restrictions may erode the progress he made.

Most important, perhaps, the arrangement leaves unfinished the debate triggered by the killing: Is what benefits developmentally disabled children necessarily good for their communities?

Police responding to Marguerite Garretty's 911 call said they found her sitting on the staircase inside her house, sobbing as she cradled Alexsis. She told them she had left the boys in an upstairs room for half an hour while she went to the grocery store. Her husband had been puttering downstairs.

When she returned, Garretty reportedly said, her grandson told her "Alexsis is hurt." She ran upstairs to find the baby wasn't breathing. Drops of blood stained the walls and floor.

That night, in a nearby intensive care ward, homicide Det. Ron Icely spoke to a sobbing Yvette Henckolas as she decided whether to allow doctors to disconnect her son from life-support machines.

The distraught mother, Icely said, did not blame the Garrettys for her son's beating. "She said she felt it was a tragedy for them too," Icely recalled.

Alexsis died the next day.

The debate over what to do began.

The police took the Garrettys' grandson to a local hospital, where he was put under psychiatric care. The couple argued passionately that placing him there would severely traumatize him. They soon were joined by advocates in the autistic community who urged Kumli to free him.

"We were very concerned about it, not only for the family but for the impact on other autistic children in the Bay Area," said Anne Struthers, a board member of the East Bay region's Autistic Society of America, a nonprofit educational and support group.

Autism is a neurological disorder believed to affect about 15 of every 10,000 Americans, four times as many boys as girls. No one knows the cause or cure for autism. Some sufferers are severely afflicted, withdrawn and living in their own world, unable to communicate. Others show only mild symptoms.

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