The R-Word and Why It Matters: The Case of Jenny Hatch
November 4th, 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg











Jenny Hatch and Kelly Morris

The Internet was ablaze with outrage two weeks ago when Ann Coulter saw fit to call the President of the United States a retard, and when, in an interview with Piers Morgan, she dismissed the concerns of disabled people, our loved ones and, well, anyone with any moral awareness at all by suggesting that retard is just another word for loser. When Mr. Morgan countered that using the word as a pejorative implies that disabled people are less than worthy, Ms. Coulter argued shamelessly that no one calls disabled people retards anymore.

How this woman has a public platform anywhere outside of a soapbox in a public park is beyond me.

I’m sick of Ann Coulter. You’re sick of Ann Coulter. The only person who isn’t sick of Ann Coulter is probably Ann Coulter. So I can understand it when people say we shouldn’t keep talking about Ann Coulter’s use of the R-word, because it just gives her the attention she craves. I can understand the impulse to ignore her, believe me, but it’s not going to solve the problem. Hate speech is hate speech, and it has power. Ignoring Ann Coulter may starve her of attention, but it’s not going to starve the word of its power. It’s not going to stop hate speech from wreaking its havoc.

Let’s see what happens when the word retard becomes synonymous with the word loser. Let’s see just how much people lose.

Jenny Hatch is a 28-year-old Virginia woman with Down Syndrome. Until this past August, Jenny was working, going to church, and integrating herself fully into her local community of Newport News, where she had lived all her life. She has now been placed under the temporary guardianship of Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Tidewater in a group home in Portsmouth, many miles from all that is familiar to her, and against her clearly expressed wishes to remain in the community and to live with her friends and employers, Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris.

As though these violations of her civil rights were not enough, Jenny has had to endure more: Her temporary guardian has confiscated her computer and her cell phone, has kept from her job and from her church, and has denied her contact with Jim and Kelly. In violation of her rights as a citizen and as a human being, Jenny is being stripped of the right to use her voice, to associate freely with others, and to have her preferences respected.

Over the past week, I have been working with Jim and Kelly on a petition to prevail upon Bill Hazel, the Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Services, to restore Jenny’s rights and to bring her home. In the process, I have become very familiar with the details of her story.

According to a WAVY-10 news report by Andy Fox, Jenny began working in Jim and Kelly’s thrift store in 2008. Jenny has also been a lifelong member of the local Methodist Church, worked on local political campaigns, and was well-known and well-loved in town. In an October 22 article in the Daily Press, Joe Lawlor reported that, until this past August, Jenny was a working, thriving member of the community:

She worked part-time at Village Thrift stores in Newport News and Hampton, about 20 hours a week. She had her own bank account, did her own laundry, can read and write and use social media on the Internet, cook simple meals and take ‘two showers per day,’ according to her friends.

So how did Jenny come to lose everything?

In a statement on the Care2 Petition Site, Jim and Kelly explain that, in January of 2012, Jenny told them that her mother and stepfather had asked her to leave the home she shared with them. She briefly went to live with someone who was never home and where she did not feel safe. In March of 2012, while riding her bicycle, Jenny was hit by a car. Her injuries required back surgery, and she remained in the hospital for a week. Because Jenny’s mother and stepfather were not willing to care for Jenny when she was discharged from the hospital, Jenny had nowhere to go. At that point, Jim and Kelly took her into their home to care for her during her recovery and began the process of putting services in place.

The battle that ensued has resulted in a nightmare for Jenny and for those who love her.

Jim and Kelly have stated that the local Community Services Board (CSB) told them that it would not provide a Medicaid waiver to help keep Jenny in the community unless she was homeless. To get the services to which Jenny was entitled by law, Jim and Kelly surrendered her to the CSB. They considered the surrender to be purely pro forma and fully trusted that Jenny would return to their home with services in place. Instead, the CSB placed Jenny in a group home. Jenny was traumatized. Several times, Jenny made very clear her desire to leave and to return to Jim and Kelly’s home. In response, the facility staff abrogated Jenny’s civil rights by taking away her cell phone and her computer, and by telling her that she could not use the group home’s telephone.

On the Justice for Jenny Facebook page, Jim and Kelly explain the details of what transpired next:

They cut us off completely from any communication with Jenny and Jenny to us or her co-workers. At this point Jenny still had the legal right to make her own decisions. Once Jenny spoke with Stewart Prost, a Human Rights Advocate with the Dept of Behavioral Health, he got involved and Jenny was now able to contact us once again. Jenny begged us to “please get me out of here” … We asked and pleaded with the CSB to place her in Newport News or Hampton where she could return to work and be close to the community that she loved. The case worker informed us that this “was her final placement.” We asked her why they are not trying to get her closer to everything she knows and we were told that they could no longer talk to us about Jenny. Even though Jenny had signed papers with the CSB giving permission for them to share information with us they still refused and blocked us out.

Jim and Kelly found an attorney for Jenny named Robert Brown, who was able to get Jenny free of the group home:

Jenny called Mr. Brown and asked him to help her. Mr Brown went to meet with Jenny to evaluate if she was competent to sign a power of attorney making us as agents. After the power of attorney was signed on August 6th she told the lawyer that she wanted to go home and Mr. Brown advised the case worker that Jenny was leaving.

Jenny returned to live with Jim and Kelly at their home. Shortly thereafter, Jenny’s mother and stepfather, who did not want Jenny in their home, filed a petition to place Jenny under state guardianship. At that point, although Jenny had not been ruled incompetent to make her own decisions, the court gave JFS of Tidewater temporary guardianship. JFS put Jenny in another group home, where she remains, cut off from communication with her friends, cut off from her work and her church, cut off from everyone she knows.

Jim and Kelly’s worst fear is that Jenny will feel that they have forgotten her.

The guiding principle of the disability rights movement is “Nothing about us, without us.” Jenny’s wishes are clear, but they have been ignored. According to the article in the Daily Press, Jenny’s self-advocacy at the court hearing granting temporary guardianship to JFS resulted in her removal from the proceedings:

She attempted to speak for herself at a hearing in Newport News Circuit Court on Aug. 27, but was shut down, according to court transcripts.

“I don’t need guardianship. I don’t want it,” Hatch said. For interrupting the proceedings, Circuit Court Judge David Pugh had her removed from the courtroom.

After a new hearing in which the judge maintained the temporary guardianship order, Jenny could be heard wailing outside in the street. According to the same article:

After an Oct. 11 Newport News Circuit Court hearing that maintained Jewish Family Services temporary guardianship over Hatch and kept her in a group home, Hatch held onto a street sign outside the courthouse, screaming and crying that she wanted to return to the couple’s home, Talbert and Morris said.

And in an interview with WAVY-10 News later in October, Jenny quite clearly stated her wishes:

I am sad because it’s heart breaking, and I want to be with Jim and Kelly.

According to the law, it is the responsibility of state agencies and professionals to provide Jenny with the support to live independently in the least restrictive setting. When the Supreme Court ruled against the state of Georgia in Olmstead v. L.C. and E.W., justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg penned the decision of the court, saying that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public agencies to provide services in the community whenever possible:

In the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Congress described the isolation and segregation of individuals with disabilities as a serious and pervasive form of discrimination. 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(2), (5). Title II of the ADA, which proscribes discrimination in the provision of public services, specifies, inter alia, that no qualified individual with a disability shall, “by reason of such disability,” be excluded from participation in, or be denied the benefits of, a public entity’s services, programs, or activities. §12132. Congress instructed the Attorney General to issue regulations implementing Title II’s discrimination proscription. See §12134(a). One such regulation, known as the “integration regulation,” requires a “public entity [to] administer … programs … in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” 28 CFR § 35.130(d) (emphasis added)

For many disabled people, living independently does not mean being able to do everything without assistance. It means having the support in place to maximize independent choices, opportunities, and freedoms. That support isn’t happening in the case of Jenny Hatch, and its absence ought to send a chill wind through everyone. Everyone is one illness, one injury, one accident, one twist of fate away from being treated like a second-class citizen.

Disability isn’t just a medical issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It’s in everyone’s best interest to recognize it as such.

Please don’t turn away. Please sign the petition at demanding justice for Jenny, and share her story widely on all of your social media, blogs, and sites.

Let’s restore Jenny’s rights. Let’s bring Jenny home.

© 2012 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


14 Responses  
  • Alyssa writes:
    November 4th, 20128:02 pmat

    This is horrible and should not be happening, but is sadly nothing near an isolated incident. People need to stop doing this.

  • Dave Hingsburger writes:
    November 5th, 20123:15 amat

    Rachel, as you requested, I’m sending readers to this post tomorrow. Can you indicate if non-Americans can sign the petition. I have not yet done so as I know of other situations like this where the petition was only for those from the pertinent country.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      November 5th, 201210:13 amat

      Hi Dave, thank you so much for bringing attention to this story. Yes, non-Americans can sign, and many have done so already.

  • Samantha Hunt writes:
    November 6th, 20121:39 pmat

    This is outrageous, but I am afraid it is way more common than anyone is aware. I live and work in Northern California for an organization who assists people with developmental disabilities. All of California has Regional Centers, these are non-profit state funded organizations to asssist people with developmental disabilities to live happy, healthy, and independent lives. We strive assist people in living the lives they desire to lead, to be who they want to be, not decide their fate and imprison them by taking away their choice and freedom. Jenny is, and sounds like she should be, an unconserved adult who should have the choice of living where ever and with whomever she wants – even if she were to make a poor choice this is her right as a human being. Many non-disabled adults make poor and unhealthy choices and yet here is Jenny trying to make good choices for herself; there is something seriously wrong with this picture. Shame on you JFS and CSB for taking away her adult human rights and treating her as a child, or more accurately, an object; and shame on you Ann Coulter. This is just one of the many actions of society that continue to oppress the disabled community.

  • louise writes:
    November 6th, 20123:14 pmat

    This is outragous!

    Let Jenny live where she wants to live!

  • Diane Wilson writes:
    November 6th, 20125:57 pmat

    What is being done to Jenny Hatch is heartless and cruel. The same thing was done to my mother. She was under guardianship because I applied to be her guardian to protect her and my sibilngs fought it. The court appointed guardian kidnapped my mother from her home and incarcerated her in a nursing home against her will, despite the fact that I was willing and able to care for her 24/7. I fought hard to get her out but she died two months later, twelve days before her freedom. She was miserable and told me she prayed to die every day she was there. She was drugged as well. She died of a broken heart and spirit. This is our country now, what the media refuses to report. We all need to wake up very quickly. We are all in danger of them coming for us next.

  • kerri writes:
    November 8th, 201211:53 pmat

    I am speechless. That this could happen and that no one would be aware. I worry for my child who one day may be a victim of this abuse. Thank you for making us aware.

  • The Informal Matriarch writes:
    November 9th, 20123:08 pmat

    This is CRAZY! There’s a similar story happening right near me with a little girl name Ayn who was taken from her father over a year ago.

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg writes:
      November 9th, 20123:15 pmat

      I’ve heard about Ayn’s story as well. Just awful. For those who don’t know about her case, here’s a link for more information:

  • The Informal Matriarch writes:
    November 9th, 20123:08 pmat

    ooo also, I’m blogging about this today.

  • Mylinda Elliott writes:
    November 9th, 20124:01 pmat

    What a horrible thing to happen to this young lady. This is just so heartless. I wonder if anyone has contacted that states protection and advocacy organization.

    In Louisiana it’s called The Advocacy Center. Every state is supposed to have one. It’s a law firm for people with developmental disabilities.

  • Anita writes:
    November 15th, 201210:16 amat

    This is an American tragedy! What ever happened to “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Jenny sounds like a very competent young lady and she should be able to make decisions for herself! My heart aches for Jenny!!

  • Matthew Smith writes:
    December 5th, 20123:29 amat

    I’ve also been reading about Ayn’s case (I’ve written three articles in fact) and am aware of other cases of families who have relinquished the care of their disabled relative (child or adult) because they need medical care in a crisis, thinking it was only temporary, and found that they could not regain that care afterwards because the state would not relinquish it. The particular case I am thinking about happened in Canada, but someone mentioned to me that it’s happened in Australia too (I have not heard of it happening in the UK). It is a consequence of means testing — that only the extremely poor can get medical and social care, while the rest have to pay, and can’t. On the other hand, the USA seems to find money for corporate nursing-home care for people with severe disabilities, but much less to support disabled people in their home.

    I had a look at the Justice for Jenny Facebook page and was disappointed to see that factual updates on the situation were difficult to find amid all the emotive rants about the injustice of the situation. Unfortunately this is all too common in websites soliciting support for families in disputes with social services, and the rants often twist the facts to support the point of view of the family. The issue has become a difficult one to campaign on, because very often the family is the only source of information and will not tell you the full facts of why their children were removed, or not being returned. I recently had to end my involvement in a case here in the UK, because the mother’s actions (despite consistently claiming she had a rock-solid case and that her lawyer had said so) made me suspicious that she had more problems than she was letting on.

  • Freedom for Jenny Hatch | Indigo Jo Blogs writes:
    April 14th, 20139:35 amat

    [...] Margaret Jean “Jenny” Hatch is an American woman, aged 29, with Down’s syndrome. Until early last year, she lived independently in Newport News, Virginia, and had been working in her friends’ store. She had an active social life and according to the Quality Trust for Individuals for Disabilities, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of people with developmental disabilities, counted “past and present members of the Newport News City Council and the Virginia General Assembly” among her friends. In March 2012 she was involved in a road accident while cycling, and briefly moved in with her friends but because of a dispute over who was to pay for her care, she was forced to move into a “congregate setting”, i.e. a “group home” (or care home as we call it here in the UK), which confiscated her phone and computer, rendering her unable to communicate with her friends. Since then, her mother and stepfather have petitioned for guardianship and have insisted that she remains in the “home” against her wishes. Her mother acquired temporary guardianship in February and her case comes to trial early next month. (I first heard about this story through the blog of Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg, Disability and Representation, and a more detailed story, as of last November, is here.) [...]

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