Thursday, April 15, 2010

Severely disabled, is she still a mother?

An unprecedented, horrific legal dispute is coming up in LA.

Abbie Cohen Dorn, now 34, and her husband Dan, could not have children. After fertility treatments, she became pregnant with triplets. However, during the birth, she was left severely disabled, with brain damage, apparently unable to communicate except - her parents and therapists claim - by blinking.

A year later her husband, who is bringing up the triplets, divorced her, and has not seen her for many months. She currently lives with her parents and has never seen her children.

Now, a court is preparing to decide issues of custody, visitation, support and property. Abbie's parents claim that Abbie has indicated she wants to see her children; her ex-husband, Dan, refuses to allow them to see her - refuses, in fact, for their grandfather to even refer to her in the children's presence. A battle over visitation rights is brewing.

At a recent pretrial hearing, Superior Court Judge Rudolph Diaz called the case "serious," "complicated" and "novel for me" -- sentiments echoed by family law and child development experts.

The California Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that disabled parents cannot be denied custody simply because of their handicaps. Parenting, the justices wrote, is as much about emotion as it is about physical ability.

"A handicapped parent is a whole person to the child who needs his affection, sympathy and wisdom to deal with the problems of growing up," the justices wrote.

But that case was about custody, not visitation, and concerned a quadriplegic parent who had raised his children alone before his injury and who could talk and drive.

Lisa Helfend Meyer, Abbie's attorney, said, "There is no case in point that addresses Abbie's particular circumstance, whether someone in her condition has a constitutional right to parent or visit her children."

But as she argued in March during a pretrial hearing, "Abbie is alive and wants to see her children. . . . The children need to have a relationship with their mother. The kids need to know the truth."

Meyer points to the California Family Code, which says that the "public policy of this state" is to make sure children have "frequent and continuing contact with both parents." The only exception is if that contact is not "in the best interest of the child"...

Greene says Dan worries that the triplets would feel "terribly guilty" if they see Abbie in her current condition and "know that their childbirth put her in that position."

"He is not opposed to them seeing her when they are older, if they want to," Greene says. "They are too young, and there is no evidence of any ability [by Abbie] to interact with them."

Clearly, it is impossible not to sympathise with all parties in this dispute - all of whom have been to hell and back. But - based only on what I have read - I do hope that the court rules in favour of granting Abbie visitation rights to her children (or rather, the opposite - allowing the children to visit Abbie).

It seems to me that the children's attitude to Abbie will depend entirely on the way she, and her condition, are presented to them. I know several families with severely disabled children, with brain damage at least as severe as Abbie's, who could not be treated more naturally and more normally by their siblings. Their parents made sure that they are part of the family - and so that is how their siblings always accepted them.

There is no reason why Abbie's children could not regard her in the exact same way - provided they are encouraged to.

The father seems to be afraid that she will come across to them as something threatening, frightening, even monstrous - something they need to feel guilty about. Here, the father's concern seems to me to reflect more his own attitude to Abbie than anything to do with his children. I don't blame him for divorcing her; he is a young man and does need to get on with his life. But I am taken back that he has not visited her in months. Do you really stop caring about the woman you married and were building a life with because she is in this tragic state? What happened to 'in sickness and in health'? What if she didn't have parents to look after her?

Her kids need to understand that she is not frightening, not repulsive, not something to be ashamed of; she is a human being, and their mother. This will be far easier to accomplish if she is part of their life from early on, rather than if they suddenly discover she exists as teenagers.

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