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 Article of Interest - Parental Rights

Deaf mom gets the 'no' she wants
By Theresa D. Mcclellan, The Grand Rapids Press, Saturday, October 05, 2002
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit www.bridges4kids.org


The judge who ruled against forcing two deaf boys to get cochlear implants said Friday she believes the devices would help them -- but it's not up to her to decide.

Kent County Circuit Judge Kathleen Feeney said Michigan law is clear that parents, not the courts, have the final say on whether to seek surgery that could allow their deaf children to hear.

After impassioned protests by advocates for the deaf and arguments from four lawyers during five days of testimony, Feeney took 10 minutes to decide the 3- and 4-year-old sons of Lee Larsen will not be forced to undergo surgery. But she said she has been mulling the issue since the start of the hearing.

"The court has no doubt it would be in their best interest to have implants," Feeney said in explaining her decision.

But, she said, "the court has paid close attention to (the mother's) adamant right to decide and not to participate in after-care" if the devices are implanted against her will.

Feeney noted the law is clear that courts cannot intervene in parents' medical decisions involving their children unless there is an emergency, and the implants would not qualify as an emergency.

Outside Feeney's chambers, Larsen's supporters jumped up and down, pummeled backs and talked excitedly in American Sign Language. Some cried.

"She fought this, she fought this and won. She is our hero," said a teary-eyed Nancy Gingery-Merchant of Wyoming.

Larsen's sons were put in foster care after authorities alleged she was negligent because she left them with a friend for a week and left the state, with no way to be reached.

The children were enrolled in the Oral Deaf program at Shawnee School in Grand Rapids, which emphasizes speech, hearing and listening but does not teach sign language. Since thechildren are profoundly deaf, they had no success at the school, and officials suggested implants.

Once they became temporary wards of the court, Joe Tevlin, their court-appointed attorney, asked the court to order the cochlear implants.

As it became clear the hearing would end in her favor, the 30-year-old Larsen, who lives in Wyoming, sat taller in her chair and started to grin.

She left the courtroom surrounded by deaf well-wishers.

"Mine, they are mine," Larsen said of her children. "I knew I should decide. I am so happy, just happy."

As a result of her ruling, the judge said she would halt an order to have the children medically evaluated for implants. She also suggested the children be enrolled in the total communication program at the Northview School District, which teaches American Sign Language.

While Feeney said evidence proved the implants would be beneficial, "there is a concern (Larsen) would shun" the children if they did receive them.

But Larsen said after the hearing: "I would never shun. They are mine. I teach them."

While Tevlin tried to show the urgency of getting the surgery done immediately -- saying cochlear implants show most promise when children receive them at a young age -- the judge ruled the situation did not constitute an emergency.

Larsen's attorney, David Gersch, savored the decision.

"This feels good," he said. "This was an exhilarating case because there was so much interest and passion."

Advocates from the deaf community supplied the passion.

Nancy Bloch, president of the National Association for the Deaf, was among those who rallied on Calder Plaza in a downpour with students from suburban Detroit and Northview Public Schools.

"We're here to show what we can do. This isn't about implants, this is about parents' rights," Bloch said in sign language as an interpreter read her words into a microphone.

The rally included hearing and deaf students and adults, some wearing cochlear implants, who waved their hands in the air to show their agreement.

The case has brought national attention to deaf concerns. Even within the courtroom, the common practice of sending the overflow crowd into another room to watch proceedings on a wide-screen monitor proved difficult, since there weren't enough interpreters. Some interpreters in the audience had to volunteer to accompany the overflow group.

Tensions seemed to ease when one deaf woman said: "They are trying."

During her comments from the bench, Feeney addressed the deaf who organized and rallied, saying their efforts showed how much they care. She asked them to put their energy into the foster care system and providing homes for deaf children.

Larsen, who was nodding her head throughout the ruling, said she is looking forward to seeing her children, who remain in foster care.

She will learn in December if she will regain custody. Tevlin said he will consider appealing.
 

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