Written Off at 3 Months as a 'Retarded' Child, Karen Boldt Finds—and Sues—Her Parents

updated 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The 14-year-old girl with the withered right leg rode her bicycle to a suburban Chicago address she had found in the telephone book. As she knocked on the door, a woman driving a silver Cadillac pulled up to the expensive ranch-style house. "I think she knew right away who I was," remembers Karen Multack Boldt. It was the first time she had seen her mother since infancy—but the reunion was hardly a joyous one. "She was angry and cold," Karen contends. "I asked her why we just couldn't be friends, and she said, 'You can't be friends with a daughter who isn't alive. You're dead. Your father and I are the only two people who know you are alive.' "

Karen's survival is no longer a family secret. Now 27, she has lodged a $33 million suit against her parents, Hyman and Lorayne Multack, for confining her to a state home for retarded children when she was an infant. Karen, in fact, has an I.Q. now put at 135, well above average. She was born with a number of birth defects, including spina bifida, a malformation of the spine. Although spina bifida is often accompanied by hydrocephalus—water on the brain, which can cause retardation if left untreated—Karen never developed that complication. "Methods were available then to make a diagnosis of hydrocephalus at birth," says Dr. David McLone, a prominent neurosurgeon at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Nevertheless, Karen was committed at the age of 3 months to the Dixon (III.) State School for Retarded Children. A nurse who was there at the time remembers that her admission papers were marked "Imbecile."

Karen says her years at Dixon were a nightmare. "What I remember most is sitting in a chair waiting and waiting for someone to come to visit me," she recounts. No one ever came. On one visiting day, she recalls being forced to stand naked behind a door of the visitors' room as punishment for wetting her pants. "I was told to be quiet or I'd be killed," she says. Finally, when Karen was 7, an attentive nurse realized that her confinement was a terrible mistake and took steps to have her placed in a foster home.

Being released from Dixon "was like being born," Karen remembers. "In my foster parents' house I ran from one room to another, trying to catch up on everything I had missed. I was wild, like a caged animal." Her foster parents, whose identities Karen guards closely, "let me show emotions, something I was never allowed at Dixon. They," she says, "gave me the key to my emotional stability."

Yet she never lost the longing to know her natural parents—even after her mother's rebuff in their first encounter. She kept telephoning members of the Multack family, but soon no one would talk to her but her father, a seafood supplier. He would not betray his wife's trust by meeting her alone. Finally, when Karen was 17, he consented, but Mrs. Multack came along, and Karen remembers with sadness the afternoon they spent talking at Lincoln Park. "She seemed angry that I had intruded on her life," claims Karen. "She kept saying, 'How can you recognize a daughter who isn't alive?' I have never seen such coldness." During dinner, when Karen angrily confronted her mother, castigating her for cruelty and selfishness, her father reached across the table, grabbed her hand and said, "Bravo." But as they drove her home, Karen says, "I knew it was the last meeting." Out of sight of her mother, her father offered her a $20 bill. " 'What is this?' " Karen remembers saying. "He just looked at me kind of sad. I guess I ended up feeling sorry for his weakness. In a way I was proud that I looked like him. But I was angry and hurt, and I always will be." She never saw them again.

At 19, after graduating from high school, Karen married Lawrence Boldt, a computer programmer she met when they were both counselors at a summer camp for retarded children. She worked as a teacher's aide at a school for the retarded in New Haven, Mich., until against her doctor's advice she gave birth to son Michael, now 4. The baby was normal, but her own health was seriously weakened. She is troubled by constant back pain, kidney and bladder problems and atrophied muscles that require her to use crutches and will eventually confine her to a wheelchair. To add to her problems, Karen was divorced 18 months ago and now lives with Michael in a New Haven trailer park, on child support and Social Security disability benefits. Right now neighbors say she cannot afford all the painkillers or psychiatric counseling she needs.

In her lawsuit, Karen is asking for a total of $103 million from her parents, the doctor who delivered her and diagnosed her illness, the hospital in which she was born, the Dixon State School and the State of Illinois. None of the defendants will comment. They are expected to argue that the suit was filed improperly—in a federal court in Michigan, rather than Illinois—and too long after the alleged injuries. But Karen insists that she deserves compensation. "There could never be a price high enough to make up for all I've gone through," she says. She notes that, according to her mother, the hospital doctors predicted that she would not survive infancy. "I can understand the terrible pressure my parents were under when they decided to commit me to Dixon," she says. "What I can't understand is why, years later, when they found out I wasn't dead and wasn't retarded, they refused to recognize me."

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