Have you heard the story of Leo Forrest? Leo is a baby boy born to Samuel Forrest and Ruzan Badalyn. What made his story so newsworthy is that Leo was born with Down syndrome in Armenia. When he was delivered, doctors and relatives came to Ruzan alone and said she needed to make a decision: keep Leo or send him to a state-run institution. Samuel was kept from the delivery room, introduced to Leo by himself later and given the same choice. Ruzan and Samuel probably had no advanced notice about Leo’s condition due to him being born in a country that has been struggling to recover from decades of war and economic collapse, thus limiting services. Sadly, institutionalization is often the main choice as many families are already facing a hard life on their own. The lack of services and accommodation for children with special needs can place intense pressure on families. Ruzan chose to give the baby up while Samuel decided to keep him and move back to New Zealand where Leo could get the care and services he needed to thrive.
To us, it may seem shocking that a scene like this still plays out today. The truth of the matter is that it isn’t all that uncommon in countries struggling economically. Even countries like Russia and China lag behind on services and accommodation with Russia pushing for institutionalization while China is just beginning to make services available. There is also the unwanted stigma and shame placed on those with special needs and the mothers who bear them as being inferior or defective. It was the same attitude that existed in America in the early to middle 20th century when people with special needs were institutionalized rather than included in society. Cowboy celebrities Roy and Dale Rogers faced the same choice when their daughter Robin Rogers, was born August 26, 1950. Like Samuel and Ruzan, Roy and Dale were offered the choice to institutionalize and hide the existence of the only child born to them both from the public, or take the child home. They were popular actors with strong careers and they knew of other celebrities who had ‘warehoused’ their children with special needs. But Roy and Dale’s strong beliefs in God and family brought Robin home to be with the family. Their celebrity helped get out the message of “inclusion” and it reached other families in the same situation. Robin was never hidden but instead included in photographs and news. Sadly, Robin died just before her second birthday due to complications from mumps. However, her brief life began Dale’s involvement to improve the resources and enhance the dignity of families who have children with special needs. Roy and Dale went on to open their house to four adopted children, along with three natural children from previous relationships. The original founders of Dale Rogers Training Center were families who wanted to create a safe and stable learning environment for their children and who shared Dale’s mission of inclusion.
Samuel and Leo are now in New Zealand with his family, while Ruzan remains in Armenia with her family. Time will tell if they reunite and raise Leo together. Perhaps, their story will turn into a lesson for Armenian families and remove the stigma that prevents inclusion for all their children.
Dale Rogers Training Center works with My Heart’s Appeal, a non-profit working in Liberia with Down syndrome children to help them share their mission and promote their cause. Visit http://myheartsappeal.org/.