Call? Don’t call? Call? Don’t call? It is every parent’s dilemma. But Helen Brewer isn’t every parent.
“Jacqui had, like, three colds in a month and I kept taking her to the doctor,” Helen remembers now. “The doctor kept telling me, ‘It’s just a cold. Keep her home. She’ll be OK.'”
He was right. So when Jacqui got what seemed to be yet another cold in December 1996, Helen confidently told her common-law husband Marc: “It’s just the same cold as before.” They didn’t take her to the doctor. But this time, she didn’t get better. For a week, 28-month-old Jacqueline Dawn Brewer suffered through what seemed like a never-ending fever, a never-clearing stuffy nose and seemingly endless diarrhea.
Helen says she suffered right along with her daughter. She would try to give Jacqui her “bubba” – “that’s what she called her bottle” – but the toddler wouldn’t drink it. When she and Marc tried to give her food, she’d throw it on the floor. She’d cry. “Marc would say, ‘Maybe she’s wet,'” Helen remembers. “But she wasn’t. I’d bathe her, that would calm her and she’d sleep again.” But only for a while. They tried putting her in her room, closing the door. “It seemed like it was working, She’d stop crying.” But then she’d be back at it. Full volume.
It went on like that for a week.
Still, Helen didn’t want to call the doctor. She says she didn’t want to be one of those “paranoil” parents who run to their doctors over every little sneeze and sniffle. And she certainly didn’t want the doctor thinking she was “too stupid” to know how to look after her own child. Too many people thought that already.
She didn’t want to call the social workers either. If she called the social workers for advice, she worried, they might take away her children. They’d done it once before. “I figured if I made a goof I’d better not tell them because they might just come in and that would be the end of it.”
It turned out to be the end anyway.
On the last morning, Helen remembers, Jacqui was “cranky, she was crying. She’d be throwing stuff at me, she’d bite herself.” Marc took their four-year-old daughter Sonya to day care while Helen tried to calm Jacqui. But 10-month-old Ryan needed her attention too.
“I called my mom and my sister to see if they had any Tylenol for Jacqui’s fever,” Helen recalls. Neither did.
Finally, around lunchtime, Jacqui fell asleep. “I could hear her breathing, you know, that sound they make when they been crying so hard.” Helen sucks in her breath in quick sobs to show me what she means.
Jacqui woke up sometime between two and three in the afternoon, she says. Helen gave her her bottle and she appeared to go back to sleep. “I checked her again around four. She looked like she was asleep.”
Marc cooked dinner for the family. And then Helen – as she usually did – left Marc in the apartment with the kids for the evening while she went to visit her sister Carol. “I figured it was only fair,” Helen says. “You know, I was home all day.” Sometimes, she and her sister would go to a local country bar to drink and flirt and have a little fun; at other times, they’d just hang out at Carol’s and talk.
Before she went out that night, Helen told Marc that if Jacqui woke up, he should change her and give her another bottle.
She didn’t wake up.
Shortly after 10 o’clock, Helen’s cousin came looking for her at her sister’s.
“She said, ‘Jacqueline’s stopped breathing.'”
Helen’s stops, wipes away a tear.
“She was dead.”
This is not exactly the way Saint John, New Brunswick police and prosecutors tell the story of little Jacqueline Brewer’s final days. During the trial last fall at which Helen Rose Brewer and Marc Dwayne Janes were convicted of manslaughter in connection with their daughter’s death, the authorities painted a bleak picture of Marc and Helen as neglectful, incompetent parents who allowed their children to live – and one of them to die – in abysmal, inhumane conditions. The New Brunswick Department of Community Services had received 16 complaints about Marc and Helen over the previous three years and, on one occasion, had briefly taken their children away from them. During the trial, medical experts graphically described how Jacqui had gone without fluids for at least two days, maybe as many as six. Perhaps most horrific of all, they testified no one had apparently even realized the little girl was dead until at least several hours after the fact, and then only after the family’s pet chinchilla had gnawed on one of her hands.
As you might expect, Helen and Marc’s trial stirred deep emotions in Saint John and beyond. Crowds gathered outside the court house each day to taunt Marc and Helen – “I hope you rot in hell!” “Child murderer!” – as they walked past.
But when Judge Hugh McLellan finally sentenced them – he dramatically put off announcing their punishment until noon on December 17, 1997, one year to the day and hour after officials believed she died – he surprised, and angered, many by sentencing Helen and Marc to just four years each in prison, less three months off for time they’d already served.
“What kind of deterrent is that for killing your child?” complained Sherry Bordage, Marc Jane’s sister.
And yet …
As Judge McLellan grappled with the question of what sentence was appropriate in this particular case, he had to be mindful of the fact, as he explained in his decision, that “both parents were of such low intelligence that they weren’t really capable of taking care of children in the first place.”
They simply didn’t know any better.
Marc and Helen, in effect, were children having children.
What happened to Jacqui was certainly unusual, And unusually horrific. But the situation is not. Marc and Helen – who tested in the bottom three per cent of the population in terms of mental capability, according to a psychologist who prepared a report on them – are far from the only “intellectually challenged” parents struggling against the odds to cope with the challenges of raising children.
And that is beginning to raise some troubling questions.
Until recently, the prevailing wisdom was that the mentally retarded (that’s still the accepted term in medical circles) should not only be kept out of harm’s way – and public sight – in institutions, but they should also be prevented, forcibly if necessary, from having children of their own. That view may have found its most eloquent expression in the chillingly frank words of U.S. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote in a 1920s U.S. Supreme Court decision: “Two generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Between the 1880s and the 1940s, in fact, mass sterilization of the mentally retarded was routine in North America. Between 1928 and 1972, nearly 3,000 teenagers at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer, Alberta, were sterilized in government-sanctioned operations to prevent them from passing on their “defective” genes.
By the 1970s, however, social activists had successfully begun to argue that the retarded must also have the right to live “normal” lives. Thousands eventually moved out of institutions. Many successfully integrated into mainstream society – attending regular schools, landing meaningful jobs and leading what most of us would consider useful, productive lives.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they eventually began to demand recognition of their other rights too – including the right to engage in sexual relationships, and to bear and raise children of their own.
That issue came to a legal head in 1986 in a landmark case in which the Supreme Court of Canada ruled a Prince Edward Island woman could not force Eve, her 24-year-old mentally retarded daughter, to be sterilized without her consent.
The Eve case deeply divided the mental retardation community in Canada. Including, perhaps most traumatically, members of the Canadian Association for Mental Retardation. Many of their board members – parents of, and caregivers for, the retarded – worried about who would care for the usually non-retarded children of retarded parents. Newly politicized “self-advocate” members, on the other hand, now not only demanded to be referred to as intellectually challenged rather than as retarded but they also staked their logical claim to all of their rights under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Though the CAMR board didn’t take an official position on the Supreme Court case – its self-advocacy group did become an intervenor – the organization did change its name soon after to the Canadian Association for Community Living. That decision, says Connie Laurin-Bowie, CACL’s coordinator of government liaison, was intended to better reflect what the CACL now sees as its primary role: promoting the rights of all people with intellectual disabilities to live full lives in their communities and “to participate in all decisions that affect their lives.”
Including having children?
“I don’t understand what the barrier is in people’s mind when it comes to the question of the intellectually challenged having families,” says Laurin-Bowie. “Why not apply the same standards people want to impose on the intellectually challenged to any other kind of family that needs support, whether it be income support or support because there’s abuse in the family, or whatever? No one suggests they shouldn’t be allowed to have children.”
No one knows just how many mentally challenged couples in Canada are having children, but one U. S. study pegs the numbers there are 120,000 births a year.
Everyone agrees the intellectually challenged do face special problems as parents. But those problems -what American journalist Tom Hallman, Jr. described as “what happens when theories and good intentions collide with reality” – are only now finally beginning to be recognized and considered.
“The research indicates that people with developmental disabilities do have difficulties with parenting,” concedes David Hingsburger, a Quebec-based sex educator who has been teaching sexuality courses to the mentally handicapped for 20 years. Those difficulties range from “basic care issues” like the fact they may not be able to read well enough to follow simple directions – how, or how often, to take a prescription medicine, for example – that could have life-or-death consequences for their offspring to the reality that many developmentally challenged parents simply “can’t provide the intellectual stimulation their children need.”
Hingsburger says he was initially reluctant to talk to me for this story. “Whenever something like [the Brewer-Janes case] happens, the automatic reaction is to make a leap between the inadequate care of a particular child and the intellectual capacity of the parents. We don’t make those kind of leaps for other minority groups. The denial of rights for gay people to parent based on one gay parent being a bad parent would not make sense in people’s heads. However, it’s an automatic assumption when it comes to a person with a disability.”
And Hingsburger is quick to insist that people with developmental disabilities, with proper support, can make fine parents. “They are certainly as capable of providing love for their children as anyone else is. And our experience,” he adds, “is that they respond very well to parenting education.” Intriguingly, he notes, “most of the people with disabilities who take our sex education class choose not to be parents once they all have the information, including the costs of having children and so on.”
Marc and Helen didn’t ever get the opportunity to take those kind of courses. Or make those kinds of choices.
In truth, they didn’t ever have many opportunities of any sort.
Helen Brewer doesn’t look like you’d expect a killer to look – she seems more like a lost little girl. This afternoon, sitting in a chair in her psychologist’s office in the new Nova Institution, the federal women’s prison in Truro, Nova Scotia, she is dressed in a white Henley shirt and beige stretch pants. Her feet barely touch the floor. She wears no make up on her full, flat face, and her brown, mall hair is pulled back, except for a fringe of bangs that hangs over her eyes. Although she says she’s off the “nerve pills” she took during her trial and is no longer taking any medication at all, her eyes still have the heavy-lidded, perpetually watering appearance of someone who has been sedated. But she seems alert and friendly, and eager to please She has an easy, shy laugh.
She tells me she doesn’t like it when people refer to her as “retarded” or “developmentally challenged.” How would she prefer to be referred to? “Normal,” she says, “I’d like people to call me normal.” But she does concede she’s slow. “I can do things, just not as quick as other people.”
As she talks, she plays with her hands, which she keeps folded in her lap. She talks hesitatingly, and with obvious discomfort, about Jacqui’s death. Helen didn’t testify at her trial – “the lawyer said they would chew me up” – and she has never told her version of the story publicly before. She has a disarming way of talking too that is just slightly “off” but in a way that seems strangely appropriate. When she talks about how Jacqui’s body was dehydrating, for example, she calls it “de-hydraining.” And when something doesn’t matter to her any more, she says it isn’t “a big concerning.”
Her big concerning these days is getting back together with Marc. He is serving his time in Dorchester, an hour away from Truro. “He is my life,” she says.
It has never been an easy life. She was born in Saint John in 1973, the youngest of four children of Shirley and Morris Brewer. According to her pre-sentence report, her upbringing was “characterized by poverty, marital discord and Mr. Brewer’s alcohol abuse.” Helen says her mother never learned to read or write, and that her oldest sister, who still lives at home with her parents, is “slow too.” Her other sister Carol and her brother Lloyd were the only ones in the family who helped her with her school work. Today, she tells me, she can read but it takes her half an hour to get through a single page. “One big long word,” she admits, will stump her.
Though her father, a sometime forestry worker, did have basic literacy skills, he was a volatile man with little interest in education. When her teacher got angry with Helen for not doing a math problem in Grade 1, for example, Helen remembers “Dad got mad and punched her. He didn’t want me to go back to school then. After that, we moved.” When teachers would send home notes for a parent to sign, Helen says her father would “get mad and tear them up.” Perhaps not surprisingly, her parents expressed little interest – or concern – about her academic performance. “When I’d come home with Ds, my parents would just say, ‘Well, you tried, it’s OK.'”
Helen repeated Grades 1 and 2. She failed Grade 3 too, “but they skipped me into Grade 4 anyway.” And so it went. Other children would tease her. “I don’t know why. They just did. Kids would say, ‘Oh you’re slow. Oh, you’re stupid.'” In junior high, older girls would beat her up, “or they’d put tacks on your chair and tell the teacher you done it.” She stops, considers. “The therapist asked me why I thought kids did that. To this day, I don’t know why.”
Shunted off to a high school special education class “with the slow ones,” she split her time between rudimentary literacy skills training and job placements designed to help her learn to at least cope with life after school. Her favorite work placement, ironically, was in a day care centre where she served as a teacher’s aide. “I’d play with the kids, you know, ‘Ring Around The Rosie,’ and the one about the blue bird in the window, and duck-goose.…”
When she was 18, a friend “introduced me with Marc” at the pool hall.
Marc Janes’ family life was, if anything, more troubled than Helen’s. His mother married five times, and Marc’s pre-sentence report suggests the first four husbands were alcoholics, or drug abusers, or physically abusive, or some combination of the above.
After graduating from a special education program in 1987, Marc turned his limited talents to hustling drugs with his birth father, and committing petty crimes. He apparently wasn’t even a very successful criminal. In 1991, the year he met Helen, Marc was convicted four times for four different offences ranging from public mischief to theft over $1,000.
But that is not the side of him Helen prefers to talk about. “Most guys would go out with me, expect me to-” she pauses, tries to find the appropriate words to explain herself, gives up: “- do something and then, a week later, they’d dump me,” she says poignantly. “Marc made it my choice. And he’d always compliment me, tell me I looked nice and give me a hug.”
There was something else that may have attracted Marc and Helen to each other, Helen thinks. “I’m not very smart and he’s not very smart,” she says simply.
Certainly, neither of them was smart enough to even consider birth control. “I never thought of precautions,” she says now. In fact, she says she didn’t even realize she was pregnant at first. “I thought I was sick, you know, a summer thing.”
Hingsburger calls this “the knowledge void. People don’t tend to think of those with disabilities as sexual beings because they see them as ‘perpetual children,'” he says, “so why do sex education? Why raise the issue of sexuality with them? The problem is that, unlike their non-disabled peers, they can’t access adequate information in other ways; they can’t get it from their peers, or from books and magazines. So they don’t have a basis on which to make good decisions about their sexuality.”
Though Helen did understand having Sonya would complicate her life – she would have to drop out of school and “Marc was in jail then, so I had to ask myself, ‘Will he be around?'” – she says she never considered having an abortion or giving the baby up for adoption. She believed she was ready – and able – to be a parent. Three times.
Jacqui, the middle child who was born in July 1994, was “sort of planned – we went to visit Marc’s mother in Ontario and, when I came back, I was pregnant” – but Ryan was not. “I felt not loved that month,” Helen explains. “Things just happened.”
By that time, a virtual army of social workers – nutritionists, family support workers, homemakers, early childhood intervention workers – was doing what it could to prop up a family in which neither parent worked and neither understood much about the basics of taking care of themselves, let alone children.
“They’d come in and tell us how the house should look, and about how we had to store cleansers out of reach, and about how we had to install plug covers over the electric sockets,” Helen recalls. “They’d make us sign a paper about it, and then they’d come back and look at the paper and say, yes, you did that.”
The problem with that sort of “watchdog” approach, says Diane Richler, the executive vice president of the CACL, is that it convinces mentally challenged parents the professionals’ role is to break up their families rather than help them. “Most so-called supports,” she notes, “are directed more at questioning whether a child needs to be apprehended than at supporting the family as a unit.”
According to the pre-sentence report, however, Marc and Helen’s family’s difficulties were complex and deep-seated. It says their relationship was marked by “instability, chaos and drug and alcohol-related turmoil.” In February 1996, just after Ryan was born, officials briefly placed the two older children in protective custody after Marc, apparently drunk, barred the door to a social worker who had come to inspect the apartment. The social worker later reported there was no food in the home and that garbage was strewn all over the floor.
As part of the agreement to get their children back, Marc agreed to seek counselling for his drinking problems. In the late fall of 1996 – just a month before Jacqueline’s death – he also landed his first-ever legitimate job: as a janitor in an apartment building. Life, says Helen, seemed to be getting better. But then, a few weeks later, Jacqueline got her “cold,” and a week after that, she was dead.
“People say, ‘How couldn’t you know?'” Helen looks at me earnestly. “But it was like the colds, only worser.” She says she was surprised when the judge said she and Marc were guilty of causing Jacqui’s death. “Family Services never taught me what kind of colds they were. They never taught us about that kind of sick.”
Sherry Bordage isn’t buying that. If there is a hero in this whole sad, sordid tangled mess, she is it. Though she and Marc, who is nearly five years younger, share the same parents and a similar history of abuse and violence, Bordage, a feisty, plain-spoken woman, somehow escaped the fates and, through sheer force of will, carved out a better life for herself, going into the military, marrying, moving to Ontario and having a family of her own. And then tried, desperately if ultimately without success, to save her niece from her even worse fate.
In the summer of 1996, while vacationing in New Brunswick, she decided to pay an unannounced visit on her brother and his common-law wife. “I’d been hearing some things about the conditions the children were living in, and I decided I wanted to see for myself.” What she saw appalled her. “The apartment was beyond anything you could imagine. There were dirty diapers everywhere, cigarettes, bottles, dishes, clothes. There was no food. It was unsanitary.”
She called Community Services and demanded someone do something. “They promised to send someone right away,” she remembers. Three days later, after warning Marc and Helen in advance an inspector would be coming, a social worker did arrive on the scene. “By then,” Bordage says, “everything was spotless. The house was clean, the kids were bathed, there was food on the table.” She stops, lets that sink in. “If they didn’t know any better, why was the house always spotless when the professionals came and a mess when they weren’t there?” She pauses again. “My brother is not a stupid man. They tried to get me to say that in court, but I don’t believe it. He chose not to work, he chose to take drugs. They chose to have children, they chose not to take care of them. At some point, they have to be adults, they have to take responsibility.”
She is still angry at the judge for handing out what she considers “ridiculously light” sentences because of what he saw as Marc’s and Helen’s limited intelligence. And she is angry too at Community Services for what she believes was putting the rights of the parents above the safety of the children.
For nearly six months after her initial visit – up until Jacqui’s death, in fact – Bordage continued to pressure Community Services officials to do something. Then, after Jacqui died, she fought them again, this time for permanent custody of Marc and Helen’s other two children.
“I blame the department for not protecting Jacqui, but I think we have to look at the laws too,” Bordage says. “If parents don’t, or won’t, or can’t look after their children, then we have to make it easier for somebody to step in and protect them. We have to stop thinking of children as chattel.”
Of anyone. Including those with mental disabilities. Today, Sherry and her husband are living in New Brunswick, raising Sonya and Ryan along with their own two children. It hasn’t been easy – for a lot of reasons. “We take it one day at a time,” Bordage says, noting that both children are victims of fetal alcohol syndrome. “And Sonya, being older, remembers her sister dying. She knows what happened. She’s having adjustment problems.”
Now that she has full custody of the children, she says she’s preparing the papers to legally adopt both of them. What will she say if Helen and Marc, after they get out of prison, ask to see their kids again? “Not in this lifetime,” she says sharply, then adds: “When they’re old enough, the children can decide for themselves whether they want to have a relationship. But I’m going to make sure they have all the facts before they do.”
Since Jacqui’s death, Bordage has been compiling a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about the case, court documents, even the psychological evaluations of Marc and Helen. When the children are old enough, she says she’ll let them read them all. “In the future, I don’t want them to be able to lie to the children about what happened to their sister.”
Back in the prison in Truro, Helen says she thinks a lot about the children she’s lost, probably forever, to Bordage. And yes, she says, she does very much want to see them again. But she understands now there are things she needs to know to be a better parent. She recently took a St. John Ambulance life-saving course in jail to make herself more able to look after someone who is sick or injured. She did well administering CPR to the test dummy, she tells me, but “I had trouble with the writing test.” She’s working on that too – taking courses in writing and math skills, as well as in anger management. “My anger problem is why I went out a lot.” And she’s also enrolled in the prison’s canine program, which matches pets with inmates in order to help them learn how to better love and take care of another living thing.
What sustains her, she says, is her continuing, ongoing long-distance relationship with Marc. They talk to each other by telephone every second Sunday. “One night we talked to each other for an hour-and-a-half,” she says with a smile. “It was pretty neat.”
They talk about what they’re doing – “Marc is going to A.A. so he’s all proud of himself. He’s going to school too; he wants to be one of those guys where they, you know, fix cars and stuff” – and about Jacqui and their regrets, and about their other kids and “how they’re doing and if they miss us,” and how much they love and miss each other. Those conversations, she says, “just boosts our relationship more.”
She says she and Marc are saving all the money they earn in prison so they can get married as soon as possible. It will cost them $250 to have the ceremony performed in prison. So far, Helen has saved up $80, Marc $70. Even if they don’t manage to scrape together enough before they’re released on parole – Helen has her first hearing in September 1998, Marc’s is in October – Helen says they will marry. “I want to spend the rest of my life with Marc. I’m tired of just living with him, and he feels the same way too. So we’re going to get married as soon as we can.”
Helen smiles shyly again. “Yes,” she says. “In the future. I want more children.”
Sherry Bordage sighs. It is a long, resigned sigh that is an equal mix of disbelief and sadness. “Personally, privately,” she begins wistfully, “part of me wishes they could both be sterilized before they’re released back into society so they could never make that mistake again.” She laughs self-consciously. “I know it’s against human rights and all of that, and it’s not socially correct, but …”
She leaves the thought hanging in the air.
Few people, including Bordage in her more considered moments, really want to return to the horrors of forced sterilization. But that’s not to deny the essential conundrum. How can we reconcile the legitimate rights of intellectually challenged adults to live their lives to the fullest – including having and raising children – with society’s obligation to ensure that innocent children get adequate care and the opportunity to live their lives to the fullest too?
Despite – or perhaps because of – everything that’s happened, Helen says she’s convinced she can still be a parent. And a good one. What does she say to people who worry that she and Marc simply aren’t capable of raising any more children?
“I just say, ‘Give us a chance,'” she tells me. “Give us a chance. We’re not bad parents. We’re not bad people.”
From Elm Street Magazine, October 1998.