In a case with far-reaching ramifications for the future of guardianship law, the Newport News Circuit Court ruled August 2 that Jenny Hatch, a woman with Down Syndrome and an IQ of 52, has a right to overrule her parent’s wishes and choose her own living situation.
With supporters crowding the courtroom wearing “Justice For Jenny” T-shirts, Judge David F. Pugh rejected Hatch’s parents guardianship request, allowing Hatch to move back in with Kelly Morris and her fiancé, Jim Talbert, in Newport News, Virginia, where she temporarily lived in spring 2012.
“For anyone who has been told you can’t do something, you can’t make your own decisions, I give you Jenny Hatch — the rock that starts the avalanche,” her attorney, Jonathan Martinis, exulted after the decision, according to the Washington Post.
Hatch’s story was the subject of a recent extensive feature in the Washington Post, which highlighted the contrasting perspectives of Hatch’s abilities at the center of her guardianship fight.
Hatch’s friends portray her as a social, enthusiastic political activist capable of living independently. Her parents portray as her someone who inappropriately hugs and kisses people and needs supervision to provide for basic daily tasks.
Five years ago, Morris hired Hatch, 29, to work at a thrift shop in Newport News. After Hatch was injured in a bicycle incident in March 2012, Hatch moved in with Morris.
Hatch’s parents, however, did not believe the home was a suitable living situation for her. Upon their request, Hatch’s case manager showed up at Morris’ home in May 2012 to take Hatch to a group home. Hatch refused, but agreed to move to guarantee long-term services while waiting for her Medicaid waiver to be approved, which would allow her to receive in-home services.
After her waiver was approved August 6, Hatch moved back into the Morris’ home, but two days later Hatch’s stepfather, who lives in North Carolina, and mother, whom Hatch does not get along with, filed for guardianship.
The judge placed Hatch under temporary guardianship and Hatch spent nearly a year jumping between different group homes. A group of seven disability advocacy groups attempted to intervene in the case by filing an amicus brief on Hatch’s behalf, but the judge did not allow the brief to enter the proceedings.
Now, Hatch will finally have the opportunity to resume living independently.
“This decision is a big step in the right direction. Like most people with developmental disabilities – and just like all of us – Jenny will learn, grow, and live best when she has the freedom and responsibility to make her own decisions,” Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a news release. “Guardianship raises grave concerns because it strips people of their fundamental right to live with independence, freedom and dignity.
“Disability is no excuse to deprive someone of her basic civil liberties, and we are thrilled that Jenny will get some control of her life back.”