Virginia Woman's Fight Against Guardianship Illustrates Dueling Theories of Guardianship Law

A 29-year-old Virginia woman with Down syndrome is fighting her mother's attempt to obtain guardianship in a case that has drawn attention to the tenuous balance between laws that seek to protect people with special needs while affording them maximum control over their lives.

Before August 2012, neither of Margaret Jean Hatch's divorced parents wanted to care for her. (Her father claimed that he couldn't provide an appropriate level of care and her mother said her relationship with her daughter was contentious.) As a result, Ms. Hatch, who has an IQ of 52, moved back and forth between friends' apartments and group homes, eventually living with her employers, Kelly Morris and Jim Talbert. However, Ms. Morris and Mr. Talbert determined that Ms. Hatch would have a better chance of qualifying for Medicaid waiver services if she was homeless, so they encouraged her to move into yet another group home until her Medicaid application was approved. Ms. Hatch moved back in with the couple once she began receiving waiver services, , but two days later, her mother, Julia Ross, and her stepfather, Richard Ross, filed for guardianship. According to an article on the Washington Post's Web site, the Rosses claimed that Ms. Hatch "lies, causes confusion, is inappropriate behaving with men, contacts neighbors relentlessly, and is obsessed with others who are nice to her."

Ms. Hatch chose to contest the guardianship, and she has drawn support from members of her community who insist that she should have the right to live where she wants. Her supporters have gone so far as to start a "Justice for Jenny" campaign. The case has drawn the interest of national advocates, including Jennifer Mathis of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who told the Post, "There is a default assumption that people with intellectual disabilities and people with mental illness need people to make decisions for them, that they cant, with aid, fend for themselves. Which just isnt true."

The Hatch case illustrates the inherent conflicts that arise under guardianship laws when it comes to people who may need some assistance but who may not require a full guardianship. Some states offer "limited" guardianships that give wards control over some decision-making while granting guardians authority to act when it comes to complex medical or financial decisions, but no system is perfect and the decision regarding competence almost always comes down to a judge's discretion. If Ms. Hatch prevails, it will show that, at least in one case, a court was willing to give a motivated woman a chance to live on her own.

Article Last Modified: 07/29/2013

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