VAN NUYS — Tracy Grimes, a severely disabled woman who was forced by the state to leave the care of a Chatsworth couple who had taken her into their family, won a major victory Monday in her battle to return to the couple's home.
A Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction stipulating that the home of Gabrielle and Frederick Hanna did not have to be licensed as a care facility in order for the wheelchair-bound Grimes to live there. The judge also said that the Hannas, whom Grimes wishes to hire as her care givers, could not be denied state funds to care for her.
"I'm so happy I can go back with my family," Grimes said, crying, as she was wheeled from the courtroom by elated members of the Hanna family while television crews gathered around them.
But Grimes, 32, who has been living since April in a Northridge board-and-care facility, could not go home with the Hannas right then, and may not be able to for at least several more weeks.
Esther Epstein, a lawyer representing Grimes on behalf of San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, explained the situation to Grimes and friends after the hearing as they sat in the courthouse cafeteria.
"You should understand you are not going home today," Epstein gently told Grimes. The state could appeal the ruling, and state officials still have to go through the process of determining how much state aid Grimes should receive, Epstein said.
"We won the big fight, today," she said, "but there are still a lot of little fights."
Grimes, who speaks with some difficulty, said she understood.
"I know I just have to hang in there a little bit longer," she said.
Grimes suffered a brain-stem hemorrhage in 1987 that left her severely paralyzed and partly blind. She cannot move her wheelchair, dress, shower or use the bathroom without assistance.
She was living in a care facility in 1991 when the Hannas first met her through their Reseda church. They grew close and eventually the Hannas invited Grimes to move in with them, which she did last year.
Drawing on her Social Security benefits, Grimes contributed to the rent on their house and Gabrielle Hanna quit her job to take care of Grimes full-time.
But the Hannas hit a snag when they applied for funds from the state In-Home Supportive Services program. State officials told them that IHSS funds are available only for disabled persons living in the home they occupied at the time they became disabled or if relatives are caring for them.
For the Hannas to care for Grimes, state officials said, the house they rent would have to be licensed. This would require substantial remodeling, such as widening some hallways, to meet state regulations for such facilities.
But then, in a Catch-22 situation, Grimes would no longer be eligible for IHSS funds because they only apply to home care, not licensed facilities.
The Hannas were told that unless Grimes was placed in a licensed facility, they would face a fine of $200 per day.
Deputy Atty. Gen. James Ahern, who represented the state in court, said in a brief interview before the hearing that he felt the law was clear.
"I think the facts are pretty straightforward," he said. "What this case is about is care and supervision of the disabled. The Hannas are not licensed to provide that care."
Grimes' lawyers, who are arguing the case \o7 pro bono\f7 , say the law is applied unfairly to disabled people who are not cared for by relatives.
"This case is about disabled people being able to live where they choose," Epstein said. But she said the Valley legal services group is not trying to have the board and care licensing program discontinued.
"We don't want to get rid of licensing," she said. "There are a lot of people who benefit because the state has requirements for care facilities. We just think the law is not being fairly applied in this case."
Judge Judith Ashman seemed to agree. She said during the brief hearing, which followed a meeting in her chambers with the lawyers from both sides, that she was granting the preliminary injunction because she believed that the arguments on behalf of the Hannas and Grimes "would prevail" in a final ruling on the case.
Ahern would not say, after the hearing, whether the state plans to appeal.
In the meantime, Grimes' lawyers said they plan to ask the state to evaluate their client's condition as soon as possible so that her level of IHSS funding can be determined.
"If you and the Hannas had all the money in the world, you could move back in with them today," Epstein told Grimes. "But that's not the real world. We have to be patient."