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
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
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
using temporary court wardships to overrule family
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.''
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
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
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
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
that, as an oral-auditory education
program, the implants can be
beneficial, in their view.
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.''