Dora Hernandez kisses her 18-year-old son Erik, who is disabled, after… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
For 18 years, Dora Sanchez Hernandez has fiercely protected her son.
From the time Erik Esequizel was born prematurely at just 24 weeks, she has been there for him. Through 50 surgeries and two near-death episodes. Through the daily demands of feeding, bathing and dressing. Through abandonment by his father and advice from doctors to pull the plug.
Now — in what L.A. County Superior Court Judge Michael I. Levanas called a "celebration of family" — Hernandez and 14 other families have been granted limited conservatorships over their disabled children. It allows them to make medical, educational, business and other decisions for their children even after they turn 18.
"Erik is my disabled son, and he means the world to me," Hernandez said. "Now there is no stopping me to advocate for him."
The courtroom session last week marked a unique collaboration among the L.A. County Superior Court, the Los Angeles Unified School District, private attorneys and Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a nonprofit that assists the poor. To make what can be an intimidating process efficient and comfortable, the parties come together four times a year to act on the conservatorship cases in one courtroom over one afternoon.
The Family Matters project was launched in 2010. Bet Tzedek, the only legal aid agency in Los Angeles County that handles conservatorship cases for free, had been helping low-income families and their disabled children for years. But Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, presiding judge of the probate department, suggested giving the families special hearing dates in the same courtroom to lesson their anxiety and discomfort. L.A. Unified provides campus space for the project's education and training sessions on the conservatorship process.
Under limited conservatorship, a family can seek continued control over decisions involving an adult child's residence, education, confidential records, contracts, medical treatment, marriage and domestic partnerships, and sexual and social contacts.
Yolande Erickson, a Bet Tzedek attorney, said that developmentally disabled adults can easily become targets of scams and abuse without their families' continued protection.
Erickson noted cases in which families discovered that their adult children had signed contracts for cellphones and even car purchases. Others have been approached with marriage offers by suitors wanting legal immigration status or have been taken to hotels and sexually abused.
And without the ability to make sound medical decisions, disabled adults can at times endanger their health.
One woman, said Bertha Sanchez Hayden, a Bet Tzedek attorney, was too frightened to agree to undergo surgery to remove precancerous cysts in her ovaries — and her family could not overturn her decision because they lacked a conservatorship.
"Our goal is to keep them as independent as possible and allow them to grow," Erickson said of the disabled young adults. "But it's a nasty world out there, and there's always a new scam. If you have a vulnerable population, people will always find a way to take advantage of them."
Erickson and Hayden said the demand for such aid is enormous: The Family Matters program has served about 100 families so far, but more than 26,750 L.A. Unified students are moderately or severely disabled.
A grant last year from the W.M. Keck Foundation allowed the project to expand from one to three L.A. Unified special education campuses and to develop training materials for pro bono partners. In January, the high-powered law firm of O'Melveny & Myers agreed to provide 10 pro-bono lawyers to assist the families.
At Friday's hearing, Janelle Zuieback — a teacher at the Benjamin Banneker Special Education Center in Los Angeles whose 18-year-old son Tyler is autistic — said she would have had difficulty scraping together the $5,000 to $10,000 it typically costs for limited conservatorship cases.
Zuieback said Tyler functions well enough to attend San Pedro High School, taking advanced algebra with mainstream students. At Tyler's request, the two will share authority over marriage and social and sexual contacts; his mother will retain sole control over the other areas.
Oscar and Gail Blane asked for complete authority over their 20-year-old son Cameron. They described him as a happy person who loves music and dancing — he recently attended his school's winter formal, decked out in a red bow tie. Yet, his mother said, Cameron can make no decisions for himself besides what to eat and drink. His parents said they worry, for instance, that someone could cajole him to hand over his Social Security number and use it to take out credit cards.
With their conservatorship petition granted, the Blanes said, those fears have been put to rest.
"It's a big relief," Gail Blane said. "Cameron legally will be safe with us."