Guardianship project aims to tap momentum of Virginia court ruling
As legal opinions go, the ruling in the Jenny Hatch guardianship case was not exactly groundbreaking -- no Brown v. Board of Education or Olmstead v. L.C.
All the judge did, in light of what he called Hatch's "animus" toward her mother, was appoint a couple that had befriended the 29-year-old woman instead of her mother and stepfather. Ross v. Hatch, 113 LRP 31633 (Va. Cir. Ct. 08/02/13).
And instead of the permanent and total guardianship the mother and stepfather had sought, the judge made the guardianship temporary and partial.
From those humble ingredients, however, disability groups have fashioned a movement to question standard guardianship practices.
For example, Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, a local group in Washington that represented Hatch, has launched a Jenny Hatch Justice Project to help others who are trying to keep their autonomy, according to CEO Tina Campanella.
The group is "trying to think about how we not only bring attention to this on a local level ... but link with other projects around the country to really help elevate this issue," she said.
And school officials should take note, according to Ari Ne'eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
"Very frequently, families are counseled by teachers, case managers, or others within the school system that part of preparing for transition should be applying for guardianship for their children with disabilities," he said. "As far as we're concerned, that really constitutes a form of educational malpractice."
Spreading around the world
The problem with guardianships, historically, is that they tend to disempower people with disabilities, according to Campanella.
"Their perspective is not being recognized and respected in the way it should be," she said. "Again, Jenny is a great example: Here's a young lady who has lots of opinions about her life and the way she wants it to go even though she needs lot of support to execute her ideas."
To build support for the new paradigm, Campanella's group cosponsored a symposium Oct. 24 on supported decision-making.
A similar meeting was held Oct. 29 in Holyoke, Mass., by a group called the Center for Public Representation.
Indeed, groups around the world are looking for new ways to support people like Hatch, according to Peter Blanck, coauthor of Legal Rights of Persons with Disabilities, An Analysis of Federal Law and chairman of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, which is helping with the Hatch project.
"I was just in Europe, and they were all hot about doing stuff over there like this," he said. "The Hatch story is emblematic of a sea change and [of] a change in attitudes and presumptions about legal capacity."
Guardianships affect people of all ages; indeed, the main focus of disability groups in years past was on older individuals, i.e., senior citizens.
But whatever the age, the issue is the same: showing concern for these individuals without taking over their lives, Campanella said.
"Much like when people get older and their abilities start to decline, other people feel not only the right but almost they feel compelled to do something about it and take control," she said. "For people with [intellectual] disabilities, it's almost built-in, because people assume that if you have a diminished IQ, then of course you can't control your life."
Moreover, any difficulty a person shows in managing his affairs is taken as proof he is incapable of handling them, she said.
"Some level of trial and error is fundamental to the human process of learning," she said. But when a person with a disability makes a mistake, "our tendency is to come in and say, 'OK, clearly this is evidence you can't handle this,' [instead of saying], 'OK, let's think about how that went."'
That's why the Hatch case is important, according to a blog post by Sharon Lewis, head of the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
"In 1963, we would never have seen stories like that of Jenny Hatch, the Virginia woman who fought for her right to make her own choices and live as she desires," she said Oct. 31, the 50th anniversary of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act. "Young adults like Jenny were not part of the fabric of our communities ... and a case such as hers would never have seen the light of day."
· Va. guardianship case highlights push for 'supported decision-making' (Aug. 12)
· DC schools to revise guidance on transfer of rights when students turn 18 (Aug. 12)
· Bid to renew workforce law, limit use of sheltered workshops has momentum (July 29)
Mark W. Sherman, a Washington bureau correspondent, covers special education issues for LRP Publications.
November 6, 2013
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