Any attorney worth their salt, when asked if they really think that an intellectually disabled client can truly understand what's at stake in a case involving their life (like a competency hearing or a guardianship dispute) can now point to Jenny Hatch's case and say that if there's any question about that, then there's at least the responsibility to take the time find out before jumping to conclusions about the client's level of understanding.
Because Jenny Hatch certainly understood, and was very clear and very consistent.
Jenny Hatch: Background
Jenny Hatch is 29 years old and has Down Syndrome. Her court battle began when her mother and stepfather filed for and were granted temporary guardianship of her. Jenny had been living with friends Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert, who she'd met when she started to work at their thrift store in 2008. She had to leave their home and go live in a group home that her family chose. (Read more here)
The Washington Post reported that the relationship between Jenny Hatch and her mother was "contentious" even before these present stressors were put on it. (Read more here)
At the court proceedings, ADA expert Peter Blanck testified that the family's petition for guardianship probably the most restrictive he'd ever seen, "a complete removal of all decision making for the individual..." Jenny's mother and stepfather wanted the right to decide where she lived and who she saw, and to make medical decisions for her. (Read more here)
Jenny Hatch: The Court Case
Jenny Hatch's case was complicated for a number of reasons: There was an abuse allegation against Jenny's mother (Read more here), and there were questions as to why the family wanted guardianship so badly when they'd said in the past that they weren't able to handle Jenny's needs (Read more here). But, when you strip it all down, as the Washington Post rightly points out, the case came down to two questions: 1) Was Jenny Hatch a legally incapacitated person who required a guardian? and 2) If so, were her parents or Morris and Talbert the more appropriate people to be her guardian? (Read more here).
On August 2, 2013, the judge decided that Jenny could benefit from guardianship for a year, with Morris and Talbert as guardians. She will live with them for the year, but after the year is up - it's all up to her.
I actually think that's a good way to work it out.
Jenny Hatch: Thoughts and Best Wishes
I understand Jenny's family's concerns about her safety. I've seen some of the behaviours that they cited as concerns for them as behaviours in people that I've supported that have concerned me (particularly the tendency to kiss and hug inappropriately or to engage in inappropriate behaviour with members of the opposite sex, which court documents said were concerns of Jenny Hatch's mother (Read more here). I understand that sometimes putting more and more restrictions on a loved one with a intellectual disability looks like the best way to keep them safe, or that increasing reliance on the behavioural expertise of professionals looks like the best way to deal with someone that chronically lies. I don't have a daughter with a disability, but I have had (still have) people with intellectual disabilities in my life about whom I worry, whose well-being concerns me, and who I sometimes wish that, God damn it, I could wrap in cotton wool and protect from a world that seems so very dangerous for them. But that wouldn't be fair to them, because:
"I make my own decisions," Jenny Hatch told her attorney. "Not you." (Read more here)
And that's why, if the judge saw fit for Jenny Hatch to have a have a guardian for a year to safely work on the hard and soft skills that she'll need for whatever life that she chooses as an independent adult, I like that guardianship went to Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert.
Jenny didn't want the life that her family wanted for her. The close control that her parents' guardianship gave them took away the life in the community that she enjoyed so much: her job, her friends, going to church, participating in the Special Olympics, and being a part of life at Republican headquarters in her town (Read more here). Talbert testified that Jenny Hatch told him that she hated the group homes, that they treated her like a child, and that she'd keeping asking him to come get her (Read more here)
Jenny Hatch actually ran away from four group homes (Read More Here). She wanted to live with her friends. She told the court repeatedly that she didn't want guardianship. Her lawyer has a note from her: "I don't need gurdenship anymore...Yes, I need help...only Jim and Kelly." (Read more here) He also has sign that she made and hung on the wall in the group home for a period: "Bring My Freedom of Choice Back. Bring My Job Back." (Read more here) For their part, Morris and Talbert threw their full effort into supporting her through this court battle from the very beginning...but it hasn't necessarily been about getting her back into their house, even though that was something that they'd obviously loved to have seen.
That's something that I respect to a tremendous degree about them:
“It’s about her right to choice,” Morris told the Washington Post. “If she chooses, I want to live with Jim and Kelly and then, six months down the line, she decides ‘I want to live in an apartment,’ that is fine. If Jenny wanted to live in a group home and made that choice on her own, we wouldn’t be where we’re at.” (Read more here)
I hope that Jenny's family can get to the point where they can see that the restrictive guardianship terms that they proposed wouldn't have been fair to Jenny, and that they would have made someone as involved in her community as she is very unhappy.
I hope that they can be happy for Jenny as she starts her life.
And I hope for Jenny that her life is everything that she wants it to be.
Congratulations, Jenny Hatch. You're a remarkable woman. I'm so happy that all this has worked out for you.