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Disabled mother battling for visitation rights gets precious time with her kids

Abbie Dorn is confined to a wheelchair and hasn't held her triplets since the day they were born. Last month her children, who live in L.A., spent time with her in South Carolina.

January 24, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Abbie Dorn, with therapist Heidi McGovern, was severely disabled when her brain was starved of oxygen after giving birth to triplets. She and her parents are in a protracted custody dispute with her ex-husband.
Abbie Dorn, with therapist Heidi McGovern, was severely disabled when… (Wade Spees, For The Times )

Abbie Dorn sat in her high-backed wheelchair, a white board resting across her lap, head tilted a little to the left.

Arrayed on the board in front of the silent 34-year-old on this Thursday afternoon in early December were small sheets of paper, each printed with a single word. Happy. Sad. Scared. Anxious. Excited.

"Abbie," prompted speech-language pathologist Sarah Gerace, "how do you feel about your children coming to visit?"

The motionless woman cast her eyes to the word "happy." A moment later, they shifted to "sad." "Did you mean happy, Abbie?" Gerace queried. Abbie blinked in response. "Did you mean sad?" She blinked again. "Did you mean happy and sad?" Another blink, long and definitive.

Two months after Abbie turned 30, Esti, Reuvi and Yossi were born at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The triplets, now 4 1/2, were strong and healthy, but a series of medical errors eventually left their young mother largely unable to move or communicate except by blinking.

Abbie has held her babies just once: the day they were born. She and her husband, Dan, have since divorced, and they are locked in an angry legal struggle over the children they once dreamed of and prayed for.

Abbie is fighting for visitation through her parents, Susan and Paul Cohen, who have been named her conservators. Dan has argued in court that seeing their disabled mother would cause the children grave harm and that he, as their only "fit" parent, has the ultimate right to make decisions about their care.

By the time of the speech therapy visit, Abbie had not seen her children for more than three years. But now, they were due to arrive in just four days for a secret visit that not even the court was aware of.

And how was she? Happy, Susan said, recounting the speech therapy visit. And sad.

The Dorn case has been in and out of Los Angeles County Superior Court for nearly a year, wending its way slowly toward trial. The children, who live in Los Angeles with their father, have been evaluated by a psychologist, Abbie, who lives in South Carolina with her parents, has been examined by a neurologist. A gag order was put in place to keep all parties silent about the visit, and then was lifted last week.

Throughout the contentious process, the attorneys' arguments have largely stayed the same, though their volume has risen with the passing months.

Vicki J. Greene, who represents Dan, has argued in documents and in court that "the constitutional right to visit with one's children is reserved for fit parents only."

Abbie does not fill that bill, she says, because she "is incapable of communication (blinking is merely reflexive) and more likely than not, would not know or acknowledge her children if they were standing before her."

Paul and Susan Cohen, she told Judge Frederick C. Shaller during a December hearing, "are trying to get grandparent visitation rights in the guise of getting it for their daughter…No matter how sad, no matter how cruel, they don't have the right to do that."

Greene has asked that the trial be split in two, that only if Abbie could actually express her desire to see the triplets during a competency phase would the fight over visitation commence. Both Shaller and Judge Rudolph Diaz, who heard the case's early actions, disagreed.

The children's psychological evaluation has been sealed from public view. But in a six-page neurological report filed in July, Dr. Angela N. Hays said that the children's mother is in a "minimally conscious state" and that it is "unreasonable to hope that she will return to anything approximating" her abilities before her brain was starved for oxygen after childbirth.

Hays, who specializes in "neurological emergencies" at the Medical University of South Carolina, said it is impossible to know whether Abbie can understand speech or interpret what she sees.

"However, it is clear that she can at least perceive images and sounds," Hays concluded. And "I cannot exclude the possibility that she may retain the capacity to recognize family members and derive some enjoyment from social interaction."

To Lisa Helfend Meyer, who represents Abbie, the case is both simple and critically important. Unless Dan can show that visitation would be a detriment to the children, who live with him in Los Angeles, Abbie has a constitutional right to see them, regardless of whether she can talk.

The case is about one mother, she says, and all parents with disabilities. Meyer told Shaller in December that Greene wants to set a standard that "to see your children you have to have a certain IQ, can't be disabled or have a certain sexual preference.

"Even prisoners have the right to see their children," Meyer told Shaller. And "it is in the best interests of these children to have a relationship with their mother."

It took nearly a month to negotiate the details of the visit to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where Abbie lives with her parents. Four days, four hours a day, all expenses paid by Susan and Paul Cohen.

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