NEWPORT NEWS, VA. — In a victory for the rights of adults with disabilities, a judge declared Friday that a 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome can live the life she wants, rejecting a guardianship request from her parents that would have allowed them to keep her in a group home against her will.
The ruling thrilled Jenny Hatch and her supporters, who included some of the country’s most prominent disability advocates.
“Oh my God,” Hatch said over and over again, shedding tears. “I’m so happy to go home today. I deserve it. It’s over. My God, it’s over.”
For more than a year, Margaret Jean Hatch, whom everyone calls Jenny, had been under a temporary guardianship and living in a series of group homes, removed from the life she knew. Hatch wanted to continue working at a thrift store and living with friends Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert, who employed her and took her into their home last year when she needed a place to recover after a bicycle accident.
Legally, Hatch’s case came down to two questions: Was she an incapacitated adult in need of a guardian, and, if so, who would best serve in that role — her mother and stepfather, or Morris and Talbert?
But for national experts on the rights of people with disabilities, several of whom testified on Hatch’s behalf, the case was about much more. It was about an individual’s right to choose how to live and the government’s progress in providing the help needed to integrate even those with the most profound needs into the community.
In the end, Newport News Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh said he believed that Hatch, who has an IQ of about 50, needed a guardian to help her make decisions but that he had also taken into account her preferences. He designated Morris and Talbert her temporary guardians for the next year, with the goal of ultimately helping her achieve more independence.
“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.
Since the case began a year ago, Hatch had run away from several group homes.
“She said she got treated like a child,” Talbert testified earlier in the week. “She just kept saying she hates it here, she hates it here, ‘Please come get me.’ ”
He and Morris hired Hatch to work at Village Thrift, one of several businesses they own, five years ago and took her into their Hampton home in March 2012 after the bicycle accident, which landed her in the hospital with a back injury.
Talbert and Morris said that 21 / 2 months later, they allowed a caseworker with the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board to take Hatch to a group home because they believed it was the only way she’d qualify for a Medicaid waiver, which would entitle her to an array of in-home and community-based services. On Aug. 6, after the Medicaid waiver was approved, Hatch returned to live with Morris and Talbert.
Two days later, Hatch’s mother, Julia Ross, and her stepfather, Richard Ross, filed for guardianship.
During court proceedings this week, Hatch sat on the opposite side of the room from her parents, next to Talbert and Morris, whose hair and arm she caressed often. Behind Hatch sat more than a dozen supporters from the Hampton Roads area, several with the words “Justice for Jenny” written on T-shirts and bracelets.
On the other side of the room, behind the Rosses, sat Jenny Hatch’s father, Richard Hatch, and her maternal grandparents.
Court records detail a contentious relationship between Hatch and her mother, who declined to comment Friday.
Jenny Hatch’s grandmother, Barbara Shine, said the reason the young woman displays such impressive qualities — mastering reading at a young age, volunteering on political campaigns and carrying herself with confidence in public — is because of the care and attention her parents gave her throughout her life.
“She learned that from the parents who want to protect her now,” Shine said before the judge’s decision was issued, adding that Julia Ross rearranged her life so she would always be within 20 minutes of her daughter. They “were as nurturing and patient as any two parents could be.”
In their request for guardianship, Hatch’s mother and stepfather asked for the right to decide where she lives, what medical treatment she receives and whom she can see, among other things. They were happy with her in a group home setting, which they believed offered the safest environment, court records show.
Peter Blanck, who has written books on the Americans with Disabilities Act and testified on behalf of Hatch, said he couldn’t recall seeing any contract as restrictive as the Rosses’ guardianship request.
“In some sense, it’s kind of a civil death,” he testified. “It’s a complete removal of all decision making for the individual, as this is written.”
When asked what the impact could be on Hatch, he testified that it put her at risk for “stagnation, regression . . . depression.”
Blanck and other experts stressed the importance of integrating people with disabilities into the community — a requirement under federal law — and respecting their personal preferences.
Sandra Hermann, who has advised governors and lawmakers on the disability services available in Virginia, testified that with a Medicaid waiver, Hatch would have access to a wide range of services to help her live independently. If needed, she could have an aide accompany her in public.
When Jenny Hatch walked out of the courtroom Friday, she saw her father standing there and went to hug him.
“Are you mad at me?” she asked.
“I’m not mad at all,” he said, pulling her close. “I love you.”
Talbert and Morris, who turned the thrift shop into a “Justice for Jenny” headquarters and spent more than $50,000 on legal fees, walked out of the courtroom smiling. They were going to move Hatch back in with them immediately.
“That was a surprise — one of the best I’ve ever had in my life,” Talbert said. “It’s a big responsibility, but Jenny is so worth everything we’ve done for her. And we’d do it all over again if we had to.”
In his closing arguments, Martinis, the legal director of Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, said that the case was not about who should get Jenny Hatch.
“Justice for Jenny is Jenny gets Jenny,” he said.
Martinis says that Hatch doesn’t need a guardian but that if she has to have one, he is pleased that it’s the one she wants and that it’s for a limited time.
“In a year, it’s all you,” he said to Hatch. “Are you ready?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “Free at last!”