May 15, 2009 — -- The alleged murder of New York's "mattress queen" by her mentally ill adult son serves as a stark reminder of the struggles and even dangers for parents who care for their older, disabled children.
Kay Barragan, 65, was found dead by the family driver early Wednesday morning at the bottom of the stairs at her Long Island, N.Y., home that she shared with her son, Eduardo "Eddie" Barragan, 38.
While parents may feel guilty about placing their adult children in assisted-living homes, health professionals warn that it's important to recognize when a child's disability could pose a threat to one's safety.
"Parents have to stop and ask, 'Can I take care of this child while ensuring my safety and their safety?'" said Roya Ostovar, a clinical psychiatrist in Boston.
Nassau County police, who said the cause of Barragan's death was blunt-force trauma, charged her son with second-degree murder in connection with his mother's death. Authorities did not know Thursday whether the son had a lawyer.
Stan Steinreich, the spokesman for 1800mattress.com, the national bedding retailer best known for its catchy slogan "leave off the last s for savings," called Barragan's death and the arrest of her son a "double tragedy."
"[She] was very, very dedicated to both the company and her family, which in later years became the center of her life," Steinreich said.
As for her son, who doesn't have an official job at the company, Steinreich said, "He was very upbeat and effervescent. He'd pop into a meeting and in his own unique way say, 'How's the business going, how are we doing today.' I think he very much felt a part of the business and the broader 1800mattress family."
Barragan, credited for giving $2,000 of her earnings from the beauty company Avon to her husband Napolean Barragan in 1976 to start Dial-A-Mattress, had lived with her son for his entire life, according to Steinreich. Dial-A-Mattress was renamed 1800mattress.com in 1996. Amid falling sales, the company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.
Kay Barragan and Napolean Barragan had been separated for a few years, so he no longer lived with his wife and son.
Barragan Never Complained About Son
"They were always together," Steinreich said of Barragan and her son. "He was incapable of living on his own."
Steinreich declined to go into detail about the son's condition, other than to say he suffered from a mental illness. In an interview with the New York Daily News Thursday, Eddie Barragan's sister, Kay Otilia Massel, said her brother had long suffered from schizophrenia.
Steinreich said that Barragan had never complained of needing help caring for her son and that it was not uncommon for one of the 180 employees of the company to lend a hand when she needed assistance.
Ostovar, who's also director for the Center for Neurodevelopmental Services at Harvard's McLean Hospital, said it's not unusual for parents with disabled children to resist getting help, even when they realize their own safety may be at risk.
"Parents fear that nobody will take as good care of their child as they would," Ostavar said. "When you're in the midst of all of this, it's very hard to step back and reassess the situation and figure out that it's time to ask for help.
"The thought of handing over your child to someone else -- a stranger -- places a tremendous amount of guilt on the parent."
Ostavar said that outsiders often incorrectly assume that all parents who feel unsafe living with their adult, disabled children have no reservations about placing them in assisted-living facilities.
"It's not an easy decision," she said. "It's heart-wrenching."
Another common misperception is that as children get older they become easier to handle, even with their disabilities. But age, Ostavar said, often has no bearing on how easy a child is to control.
"Even with a typically growing child, you might think that a 2-year-old is more difficult than a teenager, but we all know that's not true," she said. "The needs of the child just change and it's the same when you have an adult child who cannot take care of themselves.
"For those children with good cognitive skills, there is a great awareness about their own disability and a sense of grief about what they cannot do as they get older," she said. "It creates a very difficult dynamic and a kind of complication, and so it's not necessarily simpler because the child is older."
Hard for Parents to Imagine Kids Harming Them
In February of this year, an 18-year-old boy with autism beat his mother to death in their Kent, Ohio, home.
Police said that Gertrude Steuernagel, 60, who, as a university professor, had written about the struggles she faced caring for her son, was found severely beaten on the kitchen floor and ultimately died from brain trauma.
Lori Warner, a licensed psychologist and director of the Hands-On Parent Education program at Beaumont Hospitals in Michigan, said that a child's size, as they grow older, is another obstacle parents must overcome.
"If your 4- or 5-year-old child weights 30 or 40 pounds and is having tantrums, you can do a lot to physically restrain them," Warner said. "But an adult who is much bigger will be a lot harder to deal with."
Warner said that as children age, managing their outbursts becomes increasingly complicated. "Parents begin to find that they're physically incapable of physically handling and emotionally handling their children," she said.
Sometimes, Warner said, the hardest part for parents is recognizing that they're putting their own safety at risk by continuing to care for their children. "It's something people don't want to believe," she said.
"It goes against your gut instincts and feelings that your child would ever harm you on purpose."