SANTA ANA — Hazel Nichols, 96, took on the state of California and won.
Orange County Superior Court Judge David C. Velasquez on Friday issued an order prohibiting the state from removing Nichols from the board-and-care home in Buena Park where she now lives with her 91-year-old sister, Mildred Sarff.
State officials had earlier this year ruled that Nichols was technically "bedridden," as defined by a new state law. They said Nichols would have to be separated from her sister and moved into a convalescent home.
But Nichols did not want to leave. And on Friday afternoon Velasquez ruled that she should not have to.
"Hazel is going to be very happy," said Bill Turner, co-owner of Sunshine Corner, the care home where the two sisters live. "Hazel always said she didn't think the state could force her to move."
Neither sister was in court. But their names were frequently mentioned in the judicial proceedings. Advocates for elderly rights on Friday said the two sisters' battle to remain together has sparked a chain of positive developments for the aged:
* The state Department of Social Services in Sacramento on Friday announced it was working for a quick change to the controversial law that has threatened Nichols and about 5,000 other elderly people with possible moves from their board-and-care homes.
* Diane Hawthorne, an official with the Orange County office of the state's community care Licensing division, announced Friday that the state would not be seeking $50-a-day fines against the board-and-care home for refusing to move Nichols. "We're not taking any action against the home," Hawthorne said.
* Charles Skoien Jr., head of the Sacramento-based Community Residential Care Assn. of California, said Friday that the case had greatly helped the association's efforts to persuade the Legislature to change the law.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Laurie Pearlman said in court that the state realizes the Legislature is on the verge of changing the controversial "bedridden" law.
"In a matter of weeks, this case (involving Hazel Nichols) will be moot," Pearlman told Judge Velasquez.
In allowing Nichols to remain with her sister, Velasquez said from the bench that he thought the new law was unconstitutional. Velasquez noted that the new law defining "bedridden" gives the accused no right of appeal.
At the core of the controversy is a state law that took effect July 1. Part of that law stated that residents of board-and-care homes who cannot get into and out of bed unassisted are considered "bedridden." According to the law, such persons must be moved into convalescent homes that provide greater medical care.
But foes of the law say it allows neither flexibility for borderline cases, nor a way for the elderly to challenge the ruling.
In Nichols' case, a state inspector who visited the Sunshine Corner home earlier this year ruled that she needed assistance getting in and out of bed. But Nichols said she was simply tired that day, having been out the day before on an outing to nearby Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park. She subsequently demonstrated to television reporters how she could get in and out of her bed.
"I'm not so hot on this, but I'm getting better," Nichols joked to reporters earlier this week as she demonstrated her ability. She also showed that she could walk unassisted.
"I don't want to move," Nichols said. "My sister and I are happy in this home." Nichols also proudly told reporters that she is of pioneer stock--her grandfather came to Los Angeles in 1849 by crossing the forbidding Mojave Desert. She said she would fight to remain with her sister.
Television and newspaper stories about Nichols' fight have circulated nationally. "We now get calls at Sunshine Corner from all over the nation," Turner said Friday. "People are calling from all over to offer their support."
Kathleen Norris, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services in Sacramento, said Friday the department plans to amend a bill in the Legislature to make changes in the controversial law. Norris said the proposed change would allow persons who actually do have trouble getting into and out of bed to remain in their board-and-care home if certain fire protections are assured and if there is 24-hour staffing.
Turner, co-owner of Sunshine Corner, said Friday that his care home would meet those requirements.
James E. Neal, a Fountain Valley lawyer who handled Nichols' case, praised the judge's decision. Neal also said his client's case had been very significant for thousands of other elderly persons.
"A lot of family and human values were represented in this case," he said.