A U.S. senator wants the Social Security Administration to investigate why people like a Redding, Calif., man who spend their days pretending to be a baby can qualify for disability benefits.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., dispatched a letter to agency inspector general Patrick O'Carroll Jr., after 30-year-old Stanley Thornton Jr. of Redding on a National Geographic Channel program called "Taboo," which looks at strange fetishes, cultural trends and customs from around the world.
The program, which aired earlier this month, highlighted Thornton and his roommate, Sandra Dias, who acts as his "mother." Thornton wears adult diapers and drinks from a bottle. In the program, he reportedly described how he built himself an adult-sized crib and he was shown building a man-sized high-chair.
"Given that Mr. Thornton is able to determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public, drive himself to complete errands, design and custom-make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult and run an Internet support group, it is possible that he has been improperly collecting disability benefits for a period of time," Coburn, a practicing physician, wrote in a letter sent Monday.
Coburn's letter was also sent to President Barack Obama, California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, and U.S. Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif.
Apparently, Thornton was so upset at allegations he was abusing the disability system he threatened suicide.
"You wanna test how damn serious I am about leaving this world, screw with my check that pays for this apartment and food," Thornton said in an email to Washington Times, published on Wednesday. "Try it. See how serious I am. I don't care. I have no problem killing myself. Take away the last thing keeping me here, and see what happens. Next time you see me on the news, it will be me in a body bag."
The threat was taken seriously by Herger's office.
Sgt. Mike Thomas of the Redding Police Department said someone from Herger's office requested an officer check on Thornton Wednesday at his Redding home.
An officer spoke with Thornton, who told the officer he wasn't suicidal, Thomas said.
"There didn't seem to be anything about it that would appear the man needed our help or was in danger in any way," Thomas said.
Thornton didn't respond to a request for an interview sent to his email and Facebook accounts.
In a biography on his website, Thornton, a former security guard, said he pretends to be a baby because it helps him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder from abuse he received when he was a child. He says in his biography that stress aggravates a heart condition.
"The doctor explained to me that because I have so many nightmares and flashbacks so often, keeping my blood pressure at such a high level for extended periods of time, it has done damage to my heart," Thornton wrote.
He also suffered an injury to his back when he was a teen, he said in his biography.
The Washington Times reports that Thornton has been receiving disability payments for 10 years.
In his email to the Times, Thornton said he's not capable of working. He told the Times that running the website only takes four hours a month, and he said his craftsman skills were overstated by the program.
"What you saw on camera being drilled was pre-assembled the day before. All I did was drill six holes for the camera," he said in the email.
Herger said that though he didn't know particulars about Thornton's story, he supports "stringent periodic reviews" of all federal welfare recipients.
"As a champion of ending waste, fraud and abuse in federal programs, I believe such scrutiny is essential to ensure taxpayers dollars are used properly," Herger said.
But Redding psychologist Sheela Stocks said it's dangerous for politicians -- and not mental health professionals -- to be deciding whether someone qualifies for disability payments. She said no one has ever qualified for benefits because of the "adult baby" lifestyle, which she described as a coping mechanism, one that rarely requires therapy.
Stocks, who also was interviewed by National Geographic in the episode that featured Thornton, said mental health disability claims always require a legitimate diagnosis such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, personality disorders or post-traumatic stress.
"I think that they need to stick to politics," she said of Coburn and his peers.
(Ryan Sabalow is a reporter for the Redding Record Searchlight in California.)