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Abbie Dorn, severely disabled giving birth to triplets, wins the right to spend time with her children

Court establishes visitation schedule and gives children's father control over visits. Both sides claim victory in tentative ruling.

March 26, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Abbie Dorn and her father, Paul Cohen, celebrate her marriage. After her children were born, she and her husband divorced.
Abbie Dorn and her father, Paul Cohen, celebrate her marriage. After her… (Los Angeles Times )

After an acrimonious yearlong legal battle, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that a paraplegic woman who communicates largely by blinking has a legal right to see her 4-year-old triplets.

In a 10-page tentative ruling, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Frederick C. Shaller said that even though Abbie Dorn, 34, "suffers from a profound brain injury that had led to her near total and complete disability," it would be in the children's best interests to have a relationship with their mother.

"The court finds that even though [Abbie] cannot interact with the children, the children can interact with [Abbie] — and that the interaction is beneficial for the children," Shaller wrote. "They can touch her, see her, bond with her, and can carry those memories with them."

In fact, he wrote, if the children cannot develop a relationship with Dorn, "the court finds that they will likely suffer psychological harm that will negatively affect their development and their relationship with their father."

But Shaller also ruled that Dan, Dorn's ex-husband, has a right to control the visits, decide which extended family members the children see and dictate what information they receive. He ordered Susan Cohen, Dorn's mother, to refrain from telling the children that the disabled woman communicates or that someday she could recover.

The battle over daughter Esti and sons Reuvi and Yossi has essentially been a struggle between two fierce parents — Cohen and Dan Dorn — fighting for what they believe is best for children who cannot fend for themselves.

And on Friday, both saw victory in Shaller's tentative ruling, which orders Dan to take the children for five consecutive days each year to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where their mother lives with her parents. Shaller also ordered monthly visits via Skype video conference call. A full trial in the case has yet to be scheduled.

"I just heard the decision with Abbie," Cohen said by phone during a news conference in her attorneys' Century City offices. "She gave me a huge smile. I told her about the visit this summer.... She gave me a long, long blink and another huge smile. Abbie and I are grateful."

Dan is "very pleased with the result," said his attorney, Vicki J. Greene. "It allows their children to have a relationship with their mother and honors his right to be their parent."

A cascade of medical errors during the triplets' 2006 delivery starved Dorn's brain of oxygen and left her in a minimally conscious state. A court-ordered neurologist testified last week that Dorn can perceive sounds and images and blinks "to signal yes or no answers" although "it was difficult for me to get her to do that reliably."

The Cohens, who orchestrate an intensive schedule of therapies for their daughter, believe that she has greatly improved, that she will continue to improve and that she desperately wants to see her children. That is why, as Dorn's conservators, they sued on her behalf for visitation.

Two years after the triplets' birth, their parents divorced. Except for a four-day visit in December, kept secret even from the judge, Dorn had not seen her children since 2007. She had not held them since the day they were born.

Dan testified during a hearing last week that he believes Dorn is in a vegetative state, "100% not there," and that the children would get no benefit from a relationship with her. Early on in the legal battle, he argued that it would be detrimental for the children to see their mother. He told them nothing about her until they were nearly 4, and he removed all pictures of her from the house.

Shaller ordered Dan to set up a shelf or table that is "open and available to the children 24 hours a day, 7 days per week in his home devoted to the children's mother" and to place photographs and other mementoes of her on it.

"The children would benefit from having these photographs and important items as symbols for the presence and existence of their mother," Shaller wrote, "and it would reinforce in the children that [Abbie] is part of their lives."

Lisa Helfend Meyer, Abbie Dorn's attorney, called the decision in the unique case a victory for her client, for Dorn's family "and every single parent out there with any kind of disability." The most important thing, she said, "is that the court held that a disabled parent has the same right as any other parent to have visitation with her child."

Greene, in contrast, viewed it as "a very important decision for fathers' rights." Calling the ruling "fabulous," Greene said, "it was exactly what I asked the court to do."

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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