Every Grown-up Should Get Chance to Make Own Decisions

Aging baby boomers, look out, because the case I am going to talk about might have an impact on your life one day, too.

This is a case about freedom, personal decisions and whether someone who is deemed less bright than Einstein has the right to make those personal decisions themselves.

All of us who have been parents understand to some degree the lawsuit involving guardianship decided last week by Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh in Newport News, Va.  We think we know what is best for our children — even when they aren’t children anymore.

Maybe you have even experienced the same dilemma with an aging parent.  You are concerned for their safety, their well-being, and you know what is best for them.

Jenny Hatch is 29.  When she was in a bicycle accident, her friends Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris, who came to know Jenny when they hired her to work in their thrift store,  took her in.  The three formed a sort of family.

But Jenny’s mother and stepfather, Julia and Richard Ross, weren’t happy with the arrangement.  Believing they knew what was best for Jenny, they sought legal guardianship so they could make decisions for her.

If Jenny didn’t have a disability, no court would have taken such an idea seriously.  But she does have a disability — and that made all the difference.

Jenny Hatch has Down syndrome.  She is described as vibrant, loving and, let’s not forget, 29 years old.

Her parents believe she should live in a group home and managed to place her in several of them over the past year while the case was pending.

Each time, she ran away, back to her friends Talbert and Morris, who wanted her to live with them, and with whom she wanted to live.

The case, which took a year to resolve and attracted disability-rights leaders from around the country, brings the issue of guardianship front and center, where we all should be taking a good, hard look.

Having legal guardianship over someone means that you make decisions for them.  You decide where they will live, if and where they can work, what they will eat and with whom they will associate.  These are the decisions we make for children, because we believe they are not yet able to make these decisions for themselves.

Indeed, that was Jenny Hatch’s lament regarding the group homes where the Rosses wanted her to live: She was treated like a child.

But Jenny Hatch is not a child.  She is a young woman who happens to have a disability.

The thrift store became a “Justice for Jenny” headquarters, and advocates attended trial proceedings wearing “Justice for Jenny” T-shirts and bracelets.  And, in the end, justice actually arrived.

Witnesses testified that Jenny’s mother had devoted her life to Jenny, raising her to be independent, teaching her to read, arranging her own life in order to be available when Jenny needed her.

Yeah?  That’s what parents do.  And then, our children become adults and, difficult though it might be, we let go and let them make their own decisions — knowing that sometimes those decisions won’t match our own choices.

In a best-case scenario decision, the judge ruled that Jenny should have guardianship for one year, time enough to gain some life skills she still lacks.  He also decided that, as an adult, she could choose her own guardian, which meant she was allowed to go home with her friends.

Jenny Hatch’s victory is more than affording one young woman the right to live in the community and make her own choices.  It is a case to remind all of us that one among us being weaker by virtue of age or disability is not an invitation for someone else to step in and claim ownership.

Jonathan Martinis, legal director of Quality Trust for Individuals, said it best in his closing argument.  The case was not about who should “get” Jenny Hatch.  “Justice for Jenny is Jenny gets Jenny.”

And that should be the basic right of every grown-up.

Deborah Kendrick is a Cincinnati writer and advocate for people with disabilities.


Date: Sunday, August 11, 2013
News Source: The Columbus Dispatch
Authors: Deborah Kendrick