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Life on the Ranch - With 27 Kids

December 24, 1991

DARBY, Mont. (AP) _ It is a very big house - 9,000 square feet, altogether; a 40-foot-by-60- foot living room; a dining room that holds three picnic tables, end to end; two massive, dormitory-style bedrooms.

But Penny and Chuck Hauer need a very big house.

In this wood-sided dwelling on a hillside in southwest Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, the Hauers live with 27 of their children.

Penny Hauer gave birth to two of those children; the rest are adopted and have physical or mental disabilities, ranging from slight to severe. Five other children - two of them adopted - have grown up, and live away from home.

″If I saw someone else with this amount of children, I’d think they were absolutely insane,″ Mrs. Hauer says, laughing.

As she speaks, Mrs. Hauer feeds 9-year-old Curtis, who is mentally retarded and has cerebral palsy.

In a nearby wheelchair, 13-year-old Clayton does homework with the aid of a voice calculator - he cannot see the numbers. Four brain-damaged children lie on beds or blankets in the living room, monitored by special medical equipment.

Other children play under the watchful eye of 25-year-old C.J., who injured her head in a schoolyard fall at age 9 and cannot walk without support.

The story of the Hauers and their very extended family began 20 years ago, when the couple first heard that biracial children in need of homes were finding no takers. The Hauers took, and took, and took.

The couple, then living in Ohio, welcomed foster children no one else wanted - severely disabled, mentally retarded, racial minorities.

″We found we couldn’t send them back to situations that weren’t improved,″ she says. ″So, we began adopting them.

″No child should live or die in an institution,″ she adds. ″I don’t fault anyone who’s put their child in an institution. But as long as I have the conviction and the means, I’ll try to give these kids a family.″

In 1989, the Hauers and their 24 kids needed more room. A search for farm property in Ohio was fruitless. They looked to Montana, where Chuck Hauer had been raised, and found the 8-year-old house on 25 acres near the Idaho border.

The Hauers bought it and moved in during the summer of 1989. They were not universally welcomed by their neighbors.

Eighteen of the Hauer kids attend school in Darby, a small timber town 11 miles to the north. In short order Darby’s special-education students nearly doubled and the number of severely disabled students went from zero to seven.

Educators scrambled to find money and personnel. The Darby School District hired a new special-education teacher, six full-time teacher’s aides, two part-time aides and a new bus driver. A room in the school was remodeled and the tiny district absorbed about $30,000 in additional costs.

The issue caused a rift in the community, says former Superintendent of Schools Dale Huhtanen.

″There were some people who were very vengeful and hateful,″ Huhtanen recalls. ″We would get calls from people who said these kids shouldn’t be here. And we would get calls from people who said, ’What can we do to help?‴

The Hauers respond by inviting any critics to visit their home.

″If anybody is wondering about us, we say, ’Come out and take a look at us,‴ says Chuck Hauer. ″A lot of them did.″

In many ways, they found a home like any other, but on a grander scale. A spaghetti dinner is six pounds of hamburger, five pounds of spaghetti, four cans of prepared sauce, two large cans of tomato sauce and a cavalcade of salad, fruit, rolls, milk and juice.

The washing machine runs constantly, and scores of diapers are worn, soiled and changed in a day.

Until recently, Hauer worked at the school because the district couldn’t find a male special-education aide. Now, he’s back home, caring for the family.

″It’s a full-time job and we both enjoy doing it,″ Chuck says.

Chuck Hauer worked 21 years as a quality-control manager for General Tire Co. in Akron, Ohio, and as a driving instructor for the state. Mrs. Hauer had worked as an X-ray technician.

Now, both are ″retired″ to care for their family. They draw nearly all of the family’s income from Social Security benefits for their disabled kids. Medicaid pays for much of their medical costs and equipment, like vans for transporting wheelchair-bound kids and wheelchairs that cost as much as $9,000.

″We figured our budget pretty close to see if we could make it without me working,″ Chuck says. ″And it’s pretty tight.″

They get by. Their lives are full, and sometimes sad: Five of the adopted children have died from their disabilities, most recently a son in 1990.

″When you take the kids, you think you can work miracles,″ Mrs. Hauer says. ″Sometimes you can. Sometimes you can’t.

″But when we stand at a funeral home and bid one of our children goodbye, there is not one of us that doesn’t have a happy memory about them.″

As she finishes feeding Curtis, Mrs. Hauer cradles 7-year-old Cara in her arms. Born prematurely after a botched abortion attempt and not expected to live much beyond a year, Cara cannot speak, walk or feed herself.

But as she hears her mother’s voice, Cara breaks into a broad smile and laughs.