In the wake of reports that an intellectually disabled woman has been prohibited for more than a year by the Department of Developmental Services from having any contact with her father and sister, a federally funded legal assistance agency has arranged for legal representation to help the woman challenge the ban.
The Boston-based Disability Law Center opened an investigation late last year of a decision by a DDS-paid guardian to prohibit contact between the woman and her father, David Barr, and sister, Ashley Barr. Based on privacy concerns raised by the DLC, we are no longer publishing the woman’s name.
Earlier this month, a DLC attorney said the agency had assisted in making an attorney available at no charge to the woman to challenge the visitation ban in probate court, if she chooses to do so. The attorney said he was precluded by confidentiality requirements from discussing the investigation or any conclusions he may have reached in the case.
Since Thanksgiving of 2015, David and Ashley Barr have had no information about the woman’s whereabouts. She is believed to be living in a DDS-funded group home, but the Barrs have no idea where that residence might be located.
COFAR has reported that a DDS guardian imposed the ban on all contact with the woman by David and Ashley primarily because they were viewed as too emotional when they were allowed to visit her. Neither David nor Ashley Barr have been charged or implicated in any crimes, yet they said they feel they have been treated by DDS as if they are criminals.
In COFAR’s view, restricting family members from visiting a loved one impinges on a fundamental human right, and the DDS guardian should at least have obtained a probate court order before doing so. DDS should also have made sure the woman had access to legal counsel who could challenge the visitation ban on her behalf. DDS reportedly did neither of those things.
The case appears to involve a clear violation of DDS regulations, which state that people in the Department’s care have the right …“to be visited and to visit others under circumstances that are conducive to friendships and relationships…” (115 CMR 5.04)
The right to visitation is, moreover, a key aspect of family integrity in international human rights law. As an article in the Berkeley Journal of International Law states, “Sufficient consensus exists against particular types of family separation…to constitute customary international law.”
The article discusses Nicholson v. Williams, a class action lawsuit by a group of mothers against the New York City Administration for Child Services (ACS). The lawsuit “challenged ACS’s policy of automatically removing children from homes where domestic violence had occurred even if it meant removing them from the victims rather than the perpetrators of that violence.”
The children of the plaintiffs in Nicholson were kept in foster care for several weeks. According to the law journal, the court “cited the emotional and developmental damage done to the children, (and) the destruction of their family relationships…” that occurred as a result of the separation of the children from their parents (my emphasis).
We would note that the ACS lawsuit was a case involving the removal of children for just a few weeks. The Barr case involves the removal of a family member for more than a year so far, with no indication from DDS that family contact will ever be restored.
While the developmentally disabled woman in Barr case is no longer a child, she has been found to be mentally incapacitated and in need of a guardian. As such, she is in a similar legal position to a child in that she is not considered competent to manage her personal or financial affairs.
The court in Nicholson v. Williams cited specific international provisions including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and found that the New York ACS policy “violated the basic human rights of family integrity and freedom from arbitrary interference with family life, as well as the specific right of a child to be cared for by her parents.”
In what seems almost an obvious observation, but one that doesn’t seem to have occurred to DDS, the Berkeley law journal article notes:
People simply care a great deal about their families, and often suffer more from losing them than they do even from serious individual harms they suffer personally.
A couple of other points made in the law journal article are worth highlighting. One is a statement that temporary removal of children from families may cause “lasting harm to the children…especially if frequent visitation is not allowed during the removal period.”
The article also points out that the International Convention on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) imposes obligations on states in situations where families have already been separated. In particular, the ICRC states that where children are separated from one or both parents “the state must furnish the parents or children with any available information regarding their family members’ whereabouts” (my emphasis).
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court weighed in last spring with a decision upholding the right of the grandfather of a developmentally disabled woman to challenge severe restrictions placed on his right to visit her.
As we’ve said before, and will again, major reforms are needed in the state’s probate court system in order to ensure the rights of families to maintain contact with their loved ones in DDS care. One of the first steps is for the Legislature to finally pass a bill (filed in the current session as HD 101) that would require probate judges to presume parents to be suitable guardians for persons with developmental disabilities.