Margaret “Jenny” Hatch wanted to live with her friends Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris; a pretty routine activity for adults with free will on most days once the details of rent and who’s going to be responsible for the dishes have been worked out. But her case was complicated by the fact that the 29-year-old woman had Down syndrome and had been placed under the guardianship of her mother and stepfather, giving them the right to make medical decisions, decide where she lived, and essentially govern all aspects of her life. She took the matter to court, and after a long and closely-watched battle, she won.
Under the terms set out by the judge, she’ll be living with Talbert and Morris for the next year while they help her achieve more independence, and advocates hope the judge may determine she doesn’t need a guardian at all after she demonstrates the life skills she’ll learn by living with them. Independent living, sometimes involving support from aides and assistants, is the goal of many disabled people, including self-advocates fighting to keep people out of institutions and to give disabled people more choice in their lives. In this case, the judge’s ruling affirms that independent living should be a priority. Hatch is delighted to be able to live with her friends and pleased by the outcome of the case, which affirmed her rights as an adult to make decisions about her life.
This case has been followed by the disability community because it touches on a number of issues important to self-advocates, anti-institutionalization organizations, and other groups concerned about the autonomy and wellbeing of disabled people. In Hatch’s case, the hope for Hatch, her attorney and many disabled people was that the judge would rule she didn’t need a guardian at all and could choose to live independently; the judge’s ultimate ruling was that there were enough concerns about her ability to care for herself that she did in fact need a guardian, but she had the right as an adult to weigh in on who that guardian should be.
Thus, the ultimate ruling was slightly mixed for Hatch; she lost the larger battle over whether she needed a guardian at all, but she struck a powerful blow for autonomy and independence by being granted the right to play a role in the key decision of who would be charged with her care and wellbeing. Her case sends a message and sets a precedent for other situations involving guardianship disputes.
Prior to the case, Hatch had been held in a series of group homes, and her life had been severely restricted. She complained about not being able to see friends and engage in other activities of daily life, echoing the refrain of an all-too-common story for developmentally-disabled adults, who are often treated like they have no autonomy, self-determination or right to dignity and respect. Forcible institutionalization is an ongoing problem in the United States, as are decisions “made in the best interest” of disabled people without actually involving them, in direct contrast to the famous “nothing about us without us” saying that disability activists have made a cornerstone of their advocacy.
As Jenny’s attorney put it in his closing statements, ”Justice for Jenny is not THEY get Jenny, or THEY get Jenny [referring to the couples vying for guardianship]. Justice for Jenny is JENNY gets Jenny.”
In this particular case, justice has been achieved, but the larger battle for disability rights is far from over. Organizations like the ACLU and various state-level disability rights groups are working on a daily basis to free more people like Jenny.
Screenshot of WAVY Newscast