Who Decides Where a Disabled Adult Should Live?

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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Photo from Thinkstock


Tammy B.
Tammy B.5 years ago

OK so she has downe's syndrome, that's just a little bit about her. A lot more is that she is a highly functional adult. To strip her of the right to make her own life decisions is to strip her of one of her constitutional rights, the right to her pursuit of happiness. She has that right in our country, and so far as I know just since she happens to have down's syndrome does not erase that right, she still has it.Why does her mother not understand that? Doesen't she want her girl to be happy? Isn't it cool that she has found her own in nitch in the real world? I'd like to see her be happy. And she may fall a few times, we all do,weather or not we have disabilities. To put her in a group home for it is like a punnishment. I doubt she deserves any form of punnishment. Just love and acceptance.

Ulli W.
Ulli w5 years ago

I can easily agree with the notion that parents know best ...
But there is a limitation: They just know best of all outside of the person itself.
Even a baby at ages long before verbal capacities knows every moment, what would suit best to "it"self – remember (if you are parent), how little "knowing" and how much "guessing" was involved on the parents side ...

Karen F.
Karen F5 years ago

"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."
She's already estranged from the Ross's and forcing her into a group home where she can't see her friends or return to work is not going to improve her feelings towards them one bit. If she is welcomed by Talbert and Morris and was happy at work and with her friends then I would say the solution is simple... let her do what she is asking to do. She has a right to try and find her own happiness in this world, my opinion... and make her own mistakes as we all do. She had a car accident. How many other people, without Downes Syndrome, have had car accidents and what penalties did they pay?

Mm M.
MmAway M5 years ago

This article hits home!

Jen Matheson
Past Member 5 years ago

A succient but spot on comment, Ainsley Jo!

Cindy L.
Cindy L5 years ago

A very difficult situation indeed.

Ainsley Jo Phillips

This is actually a really scary article. It reminds me of that "First, they came for..." writing from Holocaust days.

I could understand where an adult with special needs has to be taken care of like a child if they have the mind of an infant, toddler, or preschooler.

However, this young woman might not be a rocket scientist but she seems to have the ability to live at least semi-independently, and she's very satisfied with the niche she's carved out for herself.

Leave her alone!!!

Help her when she asks for help--and even give her advice on some things (but accept it if she doesn't take your advice)--but don't try to force the kind of lifestyle that makes YOU comfortable on HER.

As long as she's not robbing banks, molesting children, killing people, etc., she should have the right NOT to be segregated from the rest of society as well has have the right to decide with whom she wants to associate (or not).

She might end up making bad decisions--but that is true of all of us.

Should the late, great Elizabeth Taylor have had total guardianship forced upon her and all of her decisions made by somebody else since she ended up marrying and divorcing so many times!?!

Should every college student who participates in bar crawls be made a ward of the state and made to live in a group home!?!

This case should be thrown out of court and Jenny should be allowed to returning to her personal happiness!!!

g             d c.
g d c5 years ago


Sharon T.
sharon Tyson5 years ago

These situations are never as clear cut as they seem. Emotions run high. I do not envy anyone involved in these decisions.

Genoveva M.
Genoveva M M5 years ago