Neighbor's offensive sign targets autistic teen

Published July 22, 2006 12:58 am
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Carrie Heaton does her best to keep watch over her curious and cognitively disabled 13-year-old son without being too confining.

Still, the Nephi teen slips out unnoticed on occasion and wanders the neighborhood, sometimes entering and rifling through people's homes, according to police. Neighbors to the south have complained.

But Heaton was surprised Wednesday when long-simmering tensions boiled over and her neighbors erected a sign in their front yard warning, "CAUTION, RETARD'S IN AREA."

Diagnosed with autism and other disabilities, Heaton's son functions at the level of a 4- or 5-year-old and doesn't "understand what's going on," Heaton said Friday. "He can't read the sign. But everyone else can. This not only affects him, but all the special needs people who live in Nephi, Juab County and Utah."

According to the U.S. census, there are 8,500 people with disabilities in Juab County.

Heaton phoned police, who visited the sign's authors, Kallie and Darren Galbraith, on Wednesday. But the sign was still standing as of Friday afternoon.

The city's police chief, Chad Bowles, said he planned a second visit Friday evening and hopes to convince the Galbraiths to remove the sign. But he said he is unsure whether he has any legal grounds to make demands.

"We're not looking at this like a hate crime and we're waiting to hear back from the county attorney to see what our sign ordinances are," said Bowles.

The Galbraiths did not immediately respond to attempts to reach them Friday.

Fraser Nelson, director of the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake City, has agreed to help Heaton "with some kind of community response," but currently has no plan to file a lawsuit.

"Whether or not it raises to the level of a hate crime is probably up to someone else to say," said Nelson, referring to county prosecutors. "It's a crime of ignorance. And I would say it's really hateful language meant to send a message to the family and the whole community that is one of fear and hostility."

The Disability Law Center helped pass a legislative resolution last year requiring state agencies to replace all printed references to "mental retardation" with "developmentally or cognitively disabled."

"People with disabilities have traditionally been the least among us. We have a tolerance for that kind of language that we don't have for other derogatory terms," said Nelson. "If the sign said, 'Caution, blacks living here,' or 'Caution, Jews living here,' people would respond to it in a very direct way."

In defense of the Galbraiths, Bowles said, "We've had a lot of incidents with this kid, just walking into people's homes and taking things." The police chief has contacted state child welfare and juvenile delinquency officials who have declined to take action, he said.

"This kid probably doesn't know what he's doing. But the Galbraiths are frustrated over the lack of supervision and reached a breaking point," said Bowles. "That doesn't excuse the sign. I don't care if the guy puts up a 'No Trespassing' sign, but if you start being demeaning and using slang terms, that's different."

Human Services spokeswoman Carol Sisco said she was unaware of any alleged criminal behavior by Heaton's son. She said the state pays for in-home respite care to give Heaton and her fiance, Brad Morgan, short breaks. Morgan works full time and Heaton was recently hired to work at Wal-Mart.

Sisco called the neighborhood feud "heartbreaking" and the sign, "discriminatory, sad and horrifying."

"I would hope people could talk together and work it out," said Sisco.

Heaton is unapologetic about her son's tendency to roam.

"I'm not aware of him going into people's houses. He does go out to the end of the street to look at the trains," said Heaton, adding he is a "sweet, loving guy" who has never been violent.

She said she has tried to make amends with the Galbraiths and has no intention to move.

"If they don't like so-called retarded people, then they need to go," she said. "My son has just as many rights as they do."




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