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 Article of Interest - Hearing Impaired (HI)

Michigan Judge Rules Deaf Boys Needn't Undergo Surgery

by Jon Hall, Boston Globe Correspondent, October 5, 2002

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - A family court judge denied a request from a court-appointed lawyer yesterday to have controversial hearing aids surgically implanted in two deaf boys over the objections of their mother, who temporarily lost custody of the children last year.

 

But Judge Kathleen Feeney said she was convinced the surgery was in the best interest of the boys, ages 3 and 4. Feeney said she would decide whether to order the surgery if their single mother, Lee Larsen, 30, permanently loses custody of the boys.

 

Michigan law requires that such elective procedures be authorized by the parents of children in foster care unless the parents have had their custody rights permanently terminated.

 

Larsen, who had opposed the surgery, cried when the judge issued the ruling. Joseph Tevlin, a lawyer who brought the petition to authorize the implants, said he was undecided about whether to appeal.

 

Tevlin's request for the cochlear implants, small devices that convert sound to electrical impulses sent to the brain, triggered a firestorm in the deaf community. Activists were outraged at Pevlin's suggestion that Larsen's deaf children need fixing, much less that a court would consider ordering it without their mother's agreement. Representatives of the disabled complained that the case could set off a rash of state or medical officials using temporary court wardships to overrule family decisions.

 

Inside Feeney's courtroom, a nationally known specialist on deaf studies, Robert J. Hoffmeister of Boston University, testified that cochlear implants are no guarantee that children will acquire language better or improve in their schoolwork.

 

''It's all a roll of the dice, actually,'' Hoffmeister said. ''That's what the research shows.''

 

Nancy Bloch, executive director of the National Association of the Deaf, attended the hearing.

 

Deaf students from across Michigan attended the hearing, as did dozens of other deaf activists and Larsen supporters.

 

While there is evidence that cochlear implants do help those who have had the benefit of prior hearing - even children who receive implants as young as 1 or 2 - Hoffmeister argued that benefits are minimal to children like Larsen's, who were born deaf.

 

Harlan Lane, a speech, language, deafness, and deaf culture specialist from Northeastern University, agreed. ''The fact is that children who are born deaf do not do well with this device,'' he said.

 

Lane added there is ''promising research'' into restoring natural hearing, a therapy that would not be an option to Larsen's children later in life if they undergo cochlear implant surgery now. The surgery destroys

nerves crucial to hearing.

 

In September 2001, with Larsen's consent, Feeney took temporary custody of the children after a complaint by school officials about neglect. Feeney then ordered them into foster care and Larsen into a program with parenting classes aimed at helping her regain custody.

 

Last April, Tevlin petitioned the court to order the cochlear implant surgery for the youths. He argued the implants are necessary to allow the children's brain to develop normally, and should not be considered elective surgery.

 

No state agency supported his request. In fact, the Michigan Family Independence Agency, which oversees the children's foster care, explicitly has told the judge its policy is that ''parents are the ones who decide whether or not a child in foster care should have elective surgery.''

 

The boys' father, Kelly Robinson, has said through his attorney that he opposed the surgery as well. Officials at the children's school say they have made no recommendation for cochlear implants, though they said that, as an oral-auditory education program, the implants can be beneficial, in their view.

 

Larsen's lawyer, David Gersch, said that forcing the children to have the implants could give them verbal abilities that their mother does not have. That outcome could leave her open to additional charges of neglect, he said. ''What's she supposed to do when she gets back two kids with whom she can't communicate?''

 

Larsen has adamantly argued throughout the case that the court, had it authorized the implants, would have overstepped its authority over her children. ''They are mine,'' she said. ''It is my decision, not the court's.'' 

 

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