Virginia woman with Down syndrome becomes hero to the disabled

They greeted her as a hero when she took the stage in Richmond.

Just days after a Virginia judge let Jenny Hatch leave a group home and take her first steps toward independence, the 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome delivered a speech to a gathering of the Arc of Virginia.

Hundreds of people — including those with developmental disabilities and their family members, advocates and caregivers — listened as Hatch spoke about the former life that was forced on her and the one she is now free to pursue.

“I was moved into four different group homes,” she told the crowd earlier this month. “I didn’t like it. I was treated like a child. My cellphone was taken away. My computer was taken away.”

“I deserve my rights,” she said. “I am very happy to be home now.”

When she was done, the audience members gave her a standing ovation. Then they gave her a second one. Then a third. Afterward, strangers asked for her autograph.

Hatch, who stands no taller than 5 feet and has an IQ of about 50, didn’t set out to be a champion for people with disabilities. But after a Virginia judge declared that she has the right to choose how she lives, Hatch became an immediate symbol of strength among a population used to being assessed by its weaknesses.

“Fifty years from now, the disability community will be talking about the Jenny Hatch case,” said Denille Francis, a board member for the Down Syndrome Association of Hampton Roads. “She really has become a symbol of hope, and to so many families, she is a hero.”

The association has asked Hatch to be its grand marshal for its annual awareness walk and 5K run in October. She has also received speaking invitations from local and out-of-state organizations.

When Hatch delivered the keynote address to the Arc of Virginia state convention Aug. 8, “Jenny deserved that stage and she commanded it,” said Hatch’s attorney, Jonathan Martinis, the legal director for the D.C.-based Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities. He called her case the most significant of his 20-year career and described the judge’s ruling as a “landmark decision.” He said he hopes other courts will recognize that people with disabilities can make their own decisions with support instead of needing a guardian to do it for them.

“We’re all told you can do anything you want to do if you put your mind to it,” Martinis said. “Well, people with disabilities have been told forever that they can’t do things. Jenny said, ‘I can, and I do.’ ”

Martinis stepped onstage after Hatch and told the audience: “If you support Jenny Hatch, if you want to honor Jenny Hatch, then fight like Jenny Hatch.”

Jenny Hatch: A timeline of her road to seek independence
A court battle over control

During a complicated and unusually long guardianship case, Hatch’s fight came less in the form of charging forward than in remaining steadfast.

For a year, she was forced to live in a series of group homes as Newport News Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh weighed a request from Hatch’s mother and stepfather to be appointed her guardians. The couple sought the right to decide, among other things, where Hatch lived and who visited her.

Hatch, meanwhile, made it clear what she wanted: to return to the life she had. She had lived with friends, Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert, and worked at the thrift shop they owned.

Pugh ultimately designated Morris and Talbert her temporary guardians for the next year and said he found, with appropriate support, that Hatch could “adapt and succeed independently.” He also outlined the couple’s responsibilities, which include helping her achieve the maximum benefits available to her under a Medicaid waiver that provides in-home and community-based services and supporting her in “rebuilding and strengthening her relationship” with her biological family.

Hatch’s father, Richard Hatch, said the family wanted her in a group home for her own safety, and while they wish the outcome had been different, they plan to remain in her life.

“We want what’s best for her, so we will continue to support her and keep in touch with her every day,” said Richard Hatch, who lives in North Carolina. “I hope she thrives in whatever this next chapter has to offer.”

As far as her new role as a public speaker, Richard Hatch said that his daughter has the personality for it and that he and her mother have always tried to encourage her to be active in the community. She volunteered on political campaigns and used to speak for the Special Olympics.

“If she helps people in any way whatsoever, it’s a good thing,” Richard Hatch said. “And it makes her feel good about herself, too.”

‘I love to be here’

On a recent afternoon, Jenny Hatch plopped down on her bed at Morris and Talbert’s spacious Hampton house, beaming. All around her were reminders of her newly granted freedom: balloons with the words “Welcome home,” “Justice for Jenny” T-shirts and framed, poster-size photos of her leaving the courthouse, smiling.

“I love it,” Hatch said. “I love to be here. I’m protected here. I’m safe here. To be honest with you, if something happens to Jim and Kelly, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d be heartbroken.”

The couple, who own several businesses, hired Hatch to work at Village Thrift five years ago and took her into their home in May 2012 after a bicycle accident left her with a back injury.

Morris, who has two daughters, one with cerebral palsy who lives at home, said one of the challenges with Hatch will be making her feel a part of their family without creating a child-parent dynamic.

“We want to keep that balance where she has that sense of belonging and feels the love but at the same time keeps her independence,” Morris said.

The day after the court’s decision, the couple bought Hatch a cellphone so she could reach out to her family. Hatch has used the phone to talk to her biological father and stepfather but said she is not ready to give the number to her mother. Court records detail a contentious relationship between Hatch and her mother, Julia Ross.

“She must have done something right raising you,” Talbert said.

“I know she did,” Hatch replied. “I just don’t want to be in a group home again.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen again,” Talbert assured her.

An attorney for Ross, along with her relatives, said she was not ready to discuss the case.

Talbert, who has three siblings and a nephew with intellectual disabilities, said he believes that Hatch regressed when she was at the group home, a place where she was watched constantly, even when she showered. Staff members handled her money, and now she is hesitant to do it on her own.

Hatch doesn’t deny that she needs help in some areas. She said she realizes that in a year she will no longer have a guardian and isn’t sure how she feels about it.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know if I’m ready or not,” she said. “I don’t know what next year is going to bring.”

Basking in the goodwill

But for now, she is soaking up the outpouring of support. She has read through the hundreds of messages left by strangers on the “Justice for Jenny” Facebook page. One reads: “You took the torch for people with disabilities around the world and ran with it!”

Another: “I think her story should be a Lifetime movie.”

She is also considering which speaking invitations to accept, including one for a conference in Atlanta geared toward individuals with disabilities and their families. One of the organizers called Hatch’s story “inspiring” and said it would resonate with those who attend the conference.

Morris said that over the past year, people have approached her to say the case has changed their way of thinking about how society treats people with disabilities. “It’s opening a dialogue, and we need to talk about this,” Morris said.

“And we can’t do that if we just put people in group homes,” Talbert added. “I know Jenny has always wanted to help people with disabilities, and to look at her speaking in front of the TV cameras and to look at her speaking before the Arc, I think we’re going to try to encourage that if that’s something she wants to do.”

“How would you feel about that, Jenny?” Morris asked. “Would you want to do that?”

“Yes,” Hatch said. “I like speaking.”

“I’ve said it before, but you’re very special, Jenny,” Talbert said. “There are a lot of good things waiting to come from you. You know that?”

“Yes,” said Hatch, embarrassed, burying her face in her hands.

Theresa Vargas is a reporter for the Post’s local enterprise team.
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