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When my brother, Daryl, slipped away

How did my brother escape from a group home—and never return? 

Because of his autism and cognitive disability, Daryl had a mind of a 4-year-old.

Photo by Craig D. Lindsey

Because of his autism and cognitive disability, Daryl had a mind of a 4-year-old.

When I've told the story of my brother to people they don't know how to respond. This is probably because they can't even imagine anything so awful and unsettling happening to anyone. I can see the immediate desire to sympathize in their faces, their heads often cocked down, trying to come up with some words of satisfying assurance after being hit with something they can hardly wrap their heads around.

I can hardly wrap my head around it, and I've lived it.

Born in Houston, Texas, on April 30, 1979, Daryl Vaughn Lindsey was actually my half-brother, the product of a relationship my mother had with some guy I don't know and who didn't stick around for the birth. (I found out this bit of information when I was 11, when I accidentally broke a rented VHS copy of The Couch Trip and my grandmother was trying to console me. I don't know how we got to talking about it, either.)

Daryl was born mentally handicapped and autistic. He could never fully talk, often yelling and making sounds that sounded like words. No matter how old he would get, he would continue to have the mind of a 4-year-old.

Whenever my mother had to go somewhere, it was often my job to stay at home with Daryl and keep an eye on him. My only sibling, Daryl was the epitome of unpredictability. He also suffered from intermittent explosive disorder. He would have violent, destructive fits of rage. Many things were smashed and destroyed in my family's homes because of my brother: windows, plates, TV sets. My family and I had to make sure he was never near anything valuable. But we also had to keep an eye on him because we didn't know where he would wander off.

As he got older, he began to run off on his own. One Monday afternoon in 1991, he fled the school bus and escaped out the back emergency exit, bolting into the streets. By the time my family found out about this, he was already resting in the hospital, after getting hit by a car and luckily receiving only minor wounds.

When my mother moved to a home the following year with burglar bars on the doors and windows, she thought she had the advantage on her slippery son. But she soon learned how much she underestimated my brother, whose skinny, rubbery frame would find a way to slip through the bars and out into the open air.

I remember asking my mother during this time what's going to happen to my brother when he gets older. She informed me not to worry and that he would probably be living in his own apartment. As much as I wanted to believe that at the time, I knew that wasn't going to be a possibility.

My mother's home eventually became a fortress. (I didn't live with my mother at the time. I spent most of my childhood with my grandmother, who lived nearby.) There were keys to every door in the house. All the windows in Daryl's room were boarded up. Even though my mother had the keys and my brother was essentially imprisoned in this home, I couldn't help thinking they were both trapped.

In October 2005, my mother died of endometrial cancer, a cancer she didn't let anyone know she had. My mother was intensely private to the point where she didn't let close relatives know about the dealings of her life. Even though I knew something was going on (the last time I saw her, she lost a lot of weight, which she chalked up to working out and being on a diet), I knew I wasn't going to get a straight explanation from her.

Eventually, I was informed through hospice workers the week before her death that she had cancer, and it was terminal. I flew from Raleigh, where I was working as a film critic and reporter for a daily newspaper, to my mother's home in Houston the day before she died. Even skinnier than she was the last time I saw her, my mother was on her deathbed, moaning in pain. My brother was in the next room, all locked up, practically oblivious to what was happening to her.

The day she died, paramedics put her in a bodybag and wheeled her away. I didn't let my brother see for himself that our mother was gone.

For four months after that, I took care of my brother, trying my best to feed him, medicate him with all the pills my mother left and find a proper facility that could look after him. Since my job mostly consisted of reviewing films, I had contacts in Houston who connected me with screenings so I could review the films and send my pieces to The News & Observer via email. I'll always be grateful to my former employers for letting me do that for so long.

My mother didn't exactly leave a plan for me on putting this together, so I was winging it the whole time. After weeks of talking to people involved with caring for mentally handicapped children, I was directed to a facility far on the north side of town. It had wide, warehouse-like spaces full of people they took care of during the day, people like Daryl. They also provided housing, and they drove me to a group home near Houston where Daryl would live after spending the day at the facility.

I was a bit apprehensive. I remember I spent one Saturday night watching Freaks and Geeks on DVD, contemplating how these people would take care of someone my entire family and I could hardly look after. The home I went to didn't have burglar bars. He could pull a fast one on them.

Nevertheless, I had to go back to Raleigh for my job. So, I reluctantly drove my brother to this facility. I led him by the hand through the door, where the gentleman whose job it was to look after him was ready to take him back to the warehouse space with the others. I let the guy know about all his medications and other sundry matters. I don't think Daryl even knew what was going on here.

Several days later, I flew back to Raleigh. I did all I could do. Every now and again, I would call the guy and see how my brother was doing. I sent my brother DVD sets of old '70s sitcoms on his birthday. (He was a big fan of TV and TV theme songs.) When I got back to Houston during the summer, I visited Daryl, who had a room all to himself in the warehouse space. I hung out with him and took a couple of pictures on my cellphone. As I walked to my car, I could hear him calling me and saying his address, wondering if we were heading back to my mother's house.

In 2009, a month before Daryl's 30th birthday, I got Facebook message from someone asking if I was the Craig D. Lindsey who had a brother named Daryl. I responded, and was informed that my brother was missing. He apparently slipped out of the group home early one Wednesday morning, passing the people who were supposedly working the night shift there. I was later informed this wasn't the first time he had escaped. When I tried to contact the guy who I was always talking to about my brother, it turned out he didn't work there anymore.

When Daryl slipped out under our family's watch, it usually took up to a day to find him. This time, what stretched into one day turned into several weeks, with search parties combing the area near his home and fliers posted all over the place.

The facility said they did all they could to find him. Since Daryl was of legal age, it wasn't technically responsible for his whereabouts. It conducted an investigation as to what happened, which was documented in a heavily redacted report that was later sent to me. To this day, I don't know if the person or persons who let my brother slip away were reprimanded or fired.

When I called a lawyer at the time to see if legal action could be taken against the facility, maybe a case for negligence, he said it would be impossible to prove since, with Daryl being gone, there was no physical evidence of harm or negligence.

Weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. A few years back, a detective informed me that she found a femur near Daryl's group home and she asked me for a DNA sample to see if it was a match. Raleigh police swabbed my mouth, and a week or so later, I got the news: The femur didn't come from my brother. I was relieved and disappointed. My brother wasn't dead, but he was still missing.

In the summer of 2012, I was at a pizza parlor when I got a phone call from a forensic scientist. The scientist informed me that a skull had been found near a ditch near Daryl's home. Daryl's dental records and my DNA matched. My brother was officially declared dead.

Forensics rechecked the femur they found and discovered that it belonged to my brother after all. They also found a rib bone that turned out to be Daryl's.

I didn't know what to do at this point. I checked back with lawyers to see if I could sue the facility. One told me that the statute of limitations may be expired, while another informed me that since I'm not a spouse or a parent, I have no authority to bring a suit.

For a while now, several of my colleagues have begged me to write about what happened, but I usually refused. I didn't feel like trudging this whole ordeal up in print. But my associates said that it might be cathartic for me. Well, I've written it, and I don't feel cathartic. If anything, I'm a bit pissed I have to bring this all up again.

My brother is dead, and it's very likely I'll never find out what happened. It seems that no one was held accountable for his death and no one will get a comeuppance. The funeral home in Houston still hasn't sent me his remains.

This experience has left me emotionally numb. Then again, I always knew my brother would meet a demise that would be tragic. My family and I spent years making sure he was around to see another day, but with my mother and grandmother now gone and me in Raleigh and the rest of my Houston family—I don't know where the hell they are (as you've probably guessed, we were never a close unit), my brother's days were numbered.

For 30-or-so years, I had a brother who came into this world with so many things stacked against him. He was unfortunately a burden to many, but this wasn't his fault. It was simply how he was made. And he met an end that neither he—nor any person—deserved.

I hope my brother is in a better place—because this place wasn't right for him at all.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Slip away."

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