SALEM, N.H. -- Janet Smith, one of six plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that changed the way the state of New Hampshire cares for developmentally disabled adults, has died. She was 42.
Ms. Smith couldn't talk or feed and bathe herself. She communicated with humming noises and gestures. For most of her life, she was unable to walk. She needed full-time care to negotiate each day. For the last 16 years of her life, Ms. Smith got that care at Brady House, a community-based home for developmentally disabled adults located down the road from her mother, Freda.
Ms. Smith died March 20 from esophageal cancer. The men and women who cared for her at Brady House were her pallbearers.
Brady House and others like it are the result of a 1978 lawsuit brought on behalf of Ms. Smith and five other disabled children by their parents.
When Ms. Smith was three months old, she had a seizure that left her with severe brain damage. When she was 5 years old, she moved into the now-defunct Laconia State School, after her mother had a breakdown from the stress of caring for her.
Freda Smith wasn't allowed to see her daughter for six weeks.
Ms. Smith became thin, lost her ability to walk, and got bruises the staff couldn't explain. She lived in a bare room with other patients and had no privacy. "Many of the wards had nothing in them but a couple of wooden benches. Children would be milling around or sitting on the floor. There was nothing for them," said her mother, now 75. Some of the people who worked there really cared about the residents, but they were just overwhelmed, she said.
Ms. Smith's life was better than most, her mother said. Her parents visited her every weekend and sometimes during the week. Ms. Smith came home for holidays and the summer. Her mother and others formed a parents' association and pressed for changes. In 1978, they filed a lawsuit with the help of New Hampshire Legal Assistance. In 1980, a judge ordered the state to provide the least restrictive care possible for developmentally disabled residents. The school closed in 1990.