A 28-year-old woman who has Down Syndrome, Margaret “Jenny” Hatch, is in a legal dispute with her mother about where she should live in a case that raises issues of guardianship, competency and disability rights.
Hatch had been living semi-independently, working part-time in a thrift store and riding her bicycle to see friends. After an accident with a car, she lived for more than a month with Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris, who own the store where she worked, says the Daily Press. But since the past summer, court records say that Hatch has been “forced into a group home and been placed under temporary guardianship against her will.” Hatch’s attorney, Robert Brown, says that she has been barred from seeing her friends and not allowed to return to work.
Guardianship and Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities
On turning 18, all individuals in the U.S. reach the legal age of maturity and parents can then not make legal decisions on behalf of a child. When a child like Hatch has an intellectual disability, parents or other relatives often seek guardianship, to assist an adult child with disabilities with legal, financial and many other affairs.
Is Hatch Able to Make Decisions For Herself?
Whether or not Hatch needs a guardian is under dispute and a judge has intervened. Jewish Family Services had been appointed Hatch’s temporary guardian but, says the Daily Press, the organization have requested to discontinue this role after being “badgered by people advocating for Hatch.”
Judge David Pugh has assigned temporary guardianship to Hatch’s mother and stepfather, Julia and Richard Ross. In court in Newport News earlier this week, Hatch shouted “no” after the judge announced this decision and Talbert, Morris and other supporters wearing “Justice for Jenny” t-shirts also responded with outbursts.
“Justice for Jenny” is as an advocacy group on behalf of her that Talbert and Morris started to campaign for Hatch’s independence. Court documents indicate that Hatch and her mother are “estranged.” Hatch did not acknowledge her mother in the court room, but hugged Talbert and Morris, says the Daily Press.
The court has appointed a guardian ad litem, Clara Swanson, to consider what might be the best situation for Hatch. While she has “consistently said she desires to live with Talbert and Morris,” Swanson has said that this “wouldn’t be the best living situation for Hatch” as it would lead to her becoming “more distant from the Rosses.”
What About Hatch’s Civil Rights?
Ken Falkenstein, president of the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads, says to the Daily Press that what must be kept in mind is that Hatch live in the least restricted environment and that “her rights, dignity and her wishes…be honored.”
It’s hard to dispute this. Parents do want to take their child’s wishes into account, but also must keep crucial concerns of a child’s welfare and care in mind. In the case of my teenage autistic son who has intellectual disabilities, my husband and I have already made plans to seek guardianship of him when the time comes; we have also thought about which relatives will be his guardians when we are no longer able to do so.
The dispute over where Hatch should live is a stark wake-up call to families with a child with disabilities of the complex issues involved and of the necessity of taking into account an adult child’s perspective and need for independence and choice. Hatch’s stepfather and the judge have both said that they want to do what is “best” for Hatch. As the conflict in the Newport News court room reveals, what exactly is “best” is not easy to determine.
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