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Institutionalized Woman on Her Own After Half-Century With AM-Guardians of Elderly IV Bjt

September 22, 1987

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ When she was very young, Claire tried to run away from the state institution where she was abandoned as a blind, deaf and mentally retarded child. More than 50 years later, she has finally escaped.

She can come and go as she pleases and, with murky blue-green eyes that now can see, she decorates her own apartment with sky-blue curtains and watches the stars at night.

Her restored vision and life on her own are the gifts of a guardian and care-givers who took her to an eye doctor and realized Claire had never needed to call an institution home.

Claire, who did not want her real name published, spent more than half a century in the Laconia State School. Deaf, legally blind, unable to communicate clearly with her family or those around her, she was committed after her family split up.

″Society at that time dictated to families with children who were very handicapped that they were appropriately abandoned in institutions,″ said Stephanie Krenn, Claire’s guardian with the state Office of Public Guardian.

Krenn doubts that Claire ever was retarded, but her inability to communicate pigeonholed her.

Claire, who doesn’t know her actual age but is in her 60s, doesn’t like dwelling on her past, but when she does talk about it, signing through an interpreter, her hands move quickly as unpleasant memories spill from her.

″I was at school since I was small,″ Claire signed. ″I lived at Laconia school when I was very little and I hated it. I even ran away, a long time ago. ... Security had to look for me. I took a boat and I untied the rope. ... I rowed out in the boat. They couldn’t find me. I was crying. And I was almost blind - I couldn’t see.″

Claire’s life began to change before she knew it when the state Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that New Hampshire had to provide guardians for residents at state institutions. In 1982, Claire became a ward of the Office of Public Guardian.

Her first freedom from the state school came when she moved to a group home in 1983, part of a deinstitutionalization initiative.

A second profound change was in the offing. Shortly after the guardianship began, Krenn and Claire’s caseworkers took her to an opthalmologist who determined that cataract surgery and cornea implants might restore her sight.

Part of the procedure was experimental and Krenn needed the court’s approval. The judge and lawyers used an interpreter to explain the surgery.

″She was scared, but she wanted to do it,″ Krenn said. A day after the operation on the first eye in 1984, ″she was able to look at one of her care providers and say, ‘Your sweater is blue 3/8’ It was wonderful.″

″I can see everything now,″ Claire said. ″I can see much better.″

The next step was leaving the group home, where, Krenn said, Claire was out of place and more dependent than necessary.

″Her true peer group is not the retarded and it never has been. Her true peer group is deaf people,″ Krenn said.

In May, Claire moved into an apartment. In her willful way, she declined to have anyone stay with her the first night, Krenn said.

Her walls are adorned with framed jigsaw puzzles of animals and the cover of a Boston Globe Magazine showing a woman signing. Her bird chirps in its cage in her bedroom. The place is spotless - Claire cleans and cooks for herself.

A ringing doorbell or telephone sets off strobe lights. The phone is specially adapted to let Claire send and receive typed messages.

Her television can pick up programs captioned for the deaf.

She enjoys visiting friends, shopping, picnicking and swimming.

″I’ve been to the mountains and I like to see the stars, see them all white when I look in the sky,″ Claire said.

Medicaid, Medicare and the state help Claire pay for her apartment and the caseworkers who assist her in making the transition to living alone.

Although convinced Claire needed a guardian to help her get the services she deserved, Krenn believes Claire now can make everyday decisions.

″Do I think that now, since she’s settled ... it’s time to petition to return those responsibilities and freedoms to her?″ Krenn asked. ″Yes, I do.″

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