Like many parents with mentally retarded children, Robert Benson felt a sweet rush of gratitude every time he thought about the group home where his brain-damaged son was so happily ensconced.
The feeling was especially strong, given that Benson had fought for so many years to get Stevie out of Mansfield Training School. He'd even been one of the first parents to sign on to a class-action lawsuit that forced the state institution to close in 1993.
The father's relief would be short-lived, however.
Four years later, Stevie, at age 38, put his hand in another resident's Easter basket at the group home in Westport, popped what he thought was a chocolate into his mouth and choked. A coroner would later pull a child's pink paddle ball from his throat.
Benson, whose wife and other disabled son were already dead, had now lost his entire family. In shock, he didn't ask a lot of questions about Stevie's death. He simply buried his oldest son and tried to move on.
But then something happened that, years later, would cause him to wonder if the owners of the group home that he bestowed so much faith in had privately feared that Stevie's death could cause them legal troubles. The operators deny it, but the possibility haunts Benson to this day.
"I was still shocked about Stevie's death, and didn't really think about it," Benson said in a recent interview. "I hate to think they took advantage of me, but now I wonder."
Benson's suspicions are rooted in a rather mundane event: Three months before Stevie died, Benson had made the nonprofit group home operator, Clasp Homes Inc., the beneficiary of a modest life insurance policy on his son.
Benson figured that long after he died, Clasp would still be caring for Stevie, and he wanted to do something to help the people who would take on that burden - he even lobbied other parents to do the same.
But Benson never thought he would outlive his son. So when Stevie died, Benson, facing funeral bills and other financial difficulties, asked Clasp if it would consider giving him the $12,000 it reaped from his son's life insurance policy.
Clasp President Martin Horan told Benson he'd turn the request over to his board members for review. A short time later, Clasp's board had an answer: Benson could have the money, but there was a catch - he would have to first sign a release pledging never to sue Clasp in connection with Stevie's death.
Benson, who says he had never considered suing Clasp, signed the release. It was June 17, 1997, a month and a half after his son died.
Benson now says he wonders whether staff neglect was a factor, and he regrets not asking more questions at the time. Since his son's death, a staff member in another Clasp home in nearby Easton was charged with negligent homicide, after a resident there drowned in a bathtub last year.
Horan, however, said Stevie's death was simply an unfortunate accident.
Stevie didn't have a history of sneaking food, Horan said, and the home was "fully staffed" at the time he died. DMR officials declined to comment about the case, citing confidentiality laws, except to agree with Horan that Stevie did not have a history of stealing or bolting food.
Choking is a common cause of accidental death among mentally retarded people, many of whom have limited swallowing functions.
In an interview, Horan wouldn't explain why Clasp tied the transfer of the life insurance payment to a promise from Benson not to sue the agency in connection with his son's death. But after the interview, Horan wrote a letter to Benson saying he was "concerned that the Hartford Courant may attempt to make Clasp's cooperation with your request to turn over the proceeds of Steve's life insurance policy appear to somehow be a negative or unscrupulous thing."
"We both know that this is not the case," Horan wrote. "I felt then, as I do now, that we processed your request openly, honestly, efficiently, and with a great deal of sensitivity and concern."
Stevie's death was painfully ironic.
As one of the lead plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit against the state, he could have been a poster boy for deinstutionalization of the mentally retarded. He spent his childhood in institutions from Connecticut to Texas, where his behavior problems led straight to isolation rooms and straitjackets, which in turn led to more behavior problems.
In 1974 - the same year his family moved to Westport and his younger brother, Michael, died of encephalitis - Stevie was sent to live at Mansfield Training School. His father recalls that time as a "nightmare."
"He was a zombie," Benson said. "I visited every two weeks and he'd be in bed or locked in his room every time I went."
Stevie's mother, Adrienne, was so distressed about her son's condition that she stopped visiting, Benson said. Soon afterward, she developed cancer and died a few months before he left Mansfield.
Benson, who still cries when he speaks of his wife's death, said former Gov. Ella Grasso personally arranged for Stevie to be moved into a special program at Mansfield. That put him at the head of the line for placement in the group home setting his parents had always wanted.
"It was based on the dying wishes of a parent," Benson said, covering his tear-filled eyes.
It is just as difficult for Benson to contemplate the death of his older son, who blossomed in the group home. By the time he died, Stevie had a girlfriend, played basketball in the Special Olympics, had a job and attended dances.
In some ways, too, Stevie seemed invincible to his father - despite his disability. He was a wiry, 6-foot charmer with a shock of black hair, a big grin and an even bigger appetite, who rarely got sick, his father said. He'd even bounced back from a 60-foot fall off a carnival ride at Bushnell Park one summer.
"Anyone who could survive everything he went through," Benson said, his voice trailing off, "I figured he'd be here forever."