Jenny Hatch in her New Life

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) – brings you an update on Jenny Hatch, a 29-year-old Newport News woman with Down Syndrome, who won a custody battle last week.

For the last year, Jenny’s been engaged in a lengthy court battle against her mother who wants her to live in a group home. Jenny wants to live with her friends Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris, who want to take her in.

On Friday, was there when Newport News Judge Pugh gave Jenny the right to live where she wants to. Morris and Talbert were granted temporary guardianship of Jenny, but after a year, she can make her own decisions.

“It feels awesome,” said Morris at home with Jenny on Wednesday. “Our family is complete.”

WAVY’s Andy Fox caught up with Jenny at home with her friends Wednesday and then shadowed her on her first day back at work at the Villiage Thrift Store after court proceedings ended.

It’s when you ask Jenny about her thrift store family that she gets emotional.

I’m so happy. I am so happy…,” Jenny said Wednesday through emotional sobs. “Thanks for being here…I am finally home.”

Jenny was happy to “punch in” on the computer time card with the store’s manager Kathleen Ryan. Then Jenny got to work organizing cards, bringing a contagious glow of happiness to the thrift store.

Jenny’s work was interrupted by well wishers like the Colliers, who missed her a lot.

“God is with you, Jenny,” said Amy Collier. “I’m crying, but they are happy tears, tears of joy. You have touched our lives in so many ways.”

The guardianship fight waged by Jenny’s mother has opened Talbert and Morris’ eyes about a process that nearly took Jenny from them. They were thankful for the media coverage that garnered support from the community.

“You guys kept at it. You were dedicated, and it grew and others picked up on it. I would hate to think where Jenny would be without Channel 10,” said Talbert.

Attorney Jonathan Martinis with the Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities walked the year-long struggle for independence with Jenny. He specializes in fighting for civil rights of the disabled. He wrote a letter to Fox about the fight to free Jenny from the imprisonment of living in a group home against her will and the implications her case has for others like her.

The full text of Martinis’ letter is as follows:

I have described Jenny as the “rock that starts the avalanche”  – the person who changes the way we think about guardianship in general and people with disabilities specifically, and I absolutely believe/hope that is true. For “other Jennys” this case means that they (like everyone else) can and should be judged on WHO they are and what they CAN do, not WHAT their diagnosis is and what they CAN’T do. As a result, the decision will hopefully start the avalanche toward less-restrictive alternatives to guardianship and away from overboard, overlong, overly restrictive guardianships.  

Sadly, people with disabilities  have always been judged on what they CAN’T do – everything from their education to their work to their housing to their supports is based on their limitations, not their capabilities. Did you go to Newhouse and become a journalist because you can’t do anything else?  Did you choose your home because you couldn’t live anywhere else? Of course not.  

However, that’s EXACTLY what happens to people with disabilities.  They are sent to the school or the class “for children with [insert disability here].”  They are pigeonholed in their education and employment because “this is where people like you” work and live.  I have a friend who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.  He also has a masters degree.  He told me about going into a large, well-known retailer and being offered a job on the spot – as a greeter . When he mentioned that he might be able to do something else, he was told “we hire people like you as greeters.”   

As I’ve said before, just because I go to a mechanic, no one assumes I can’t drive. Just because I need a doctor to cut through medical jargon so I can decide what treatment to get and medication to take, no one assumes I can’t take care of my health.   Now think about Jenny. She gets into a bike accident, is shook up, is in the hospital, and is scared.  Health care professionals and her family explain why she should get surgery – encourage her to get surgery, even though she’s scared of needles. She agrees to have surgery.  Yet, people use this incident as proof she CAN’T make medical decisions? Why? Would you put up with that? 

Judge Pugh’s decision recognizes that a person CAN have limitations and STILL be able to make his or her own decisions.  That’s the real message, the real key of this case.  As I said, this was never a custody case: it wasn’t about who GETS Jenny, it was about what Jenny GETS to do, what she CAN do.  For all the “other Jennys,” that’s the real impact of this case.

The most important thing is that Jenny will only be under guardianship for one year (and a limited guardianship over safety and medical decisions at that – Jenny makes all other decisions).  During the time of guardianship Ms. Morris and Mr. Talbert must use supported decision making.  In one year, Jenny makes all her own decisions – again, using supported decision making.   This is the first case in Virginia to recognize and endorse supported decision making. That, in and of itself, will be a great benefit to all those who can use that method (and, our expert said that people with IQs significantly lower than Jenny’s – even assuming hers was as low as tested – can use and benefit from it). 

This will, hopefully, move us away from people reflexively seeking guardianship over EVERYTHING in a person’s life just because s/he needs help with SOMETHING in life.  Put another way, if you have trouble spelling, your boss isn’t firing you – you’re getting a dictionary.  Shouldn’t it be that way for people with disabilities?

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Date: Wednesday, August 7, 2013
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Authors: Andy Fox