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Should a Severely Disabled Mother Get to See Her Kids?

abbie-dorn-la-times-severely-disabled-motherNobody is arguing that Abbie Dorn should be allowed to take care of her kids. The 34-year-old mother of triplets is severely disabled, unable to speak or sit up or even lift a child to her lap. Instead, her two girls and a boy, who are nearly four, live with their father, Dan Dorn, in California, while Abbie lives in South Carolina, where her parents, Susan and Paul Cohen, take care of her every need.

One of those needs, the Cohens say, is to see her three children, which she has held only once in her life — just after she suffered a botched c-section and before a resulting severe cardiac arrest and subsequent strokes.

But Dan, who divorced Abbie exactly a year after the birth complications and resulting severe disabilities, says the children would be traumatized by their mother, who he claims lives in a constant vegetative state with no hope of recovery. She gave birth to the triplets, but she’s not a mother. In fact, he forbids any discussion of mothers with his kids, Paul Cohen says, a request that the grandfather honors in order to maintain regular contact with the three.

The Dorn’s story in the LA Times is not only tragic, it forces us to answer uncomfortable questions: What is a parent? Do children have a right to know their mothers? When is a disability so severe that legal parental rights no longer apply?

The Cohens are fighting on behalf of Abbie in court and soon a California Superior Court judge will decide whether the mother has a right to visits from her children. Dan Dorn’s attorneys say the fight is really about the grandparents wishes, not Abbie’s, since the mother cannot speak for herself.

But the Cohens claim Abbie can communicate, that she answers yes or no questions with blinks of her eyes. A blink means yes. No response means no.

At the end of the piece, someone asks Abbie whether she wants to see her kids. The reporter writes:

She blinks, long and hard.

I’m not inclined to weigh in on Abbie Dorn’s medical condition. Did she really understand what was asked and could she really generate a response? Maybe the long hard blink was a reaction to a loud noise, in this case a voice. Maybe her caregivers are seeing what they want to see, responses to their questions, a daughter who can still communicate. I’m leaving that for the pros to sort out.

I can’t help but think about her kids, though. I think they should be allowed to see their mother and to know about her. The father wouldn’t agree to be interviewed for the story, but the grandparents say the kids don’t even know about their mom, because the father worries that they’ll feel guilty for what happened to her. Would they? That sounds like the father’s guilt more than any kids’.

I think the father has really messed up. It wouldn’t be traumatic if he hadn’t stopped bringing them to her for visits for the last 2 1/2 years. Even just to see her, be next to her, smell her. If they had done that all their lives, hospital visits and their curled up mother would all be normal to them and, while maybe not joyful or exciting, also not traumatic.

Sure, they’re likely to never have a cuddly relationship with the woman who gave birth to them; they’ll likely never have heart-to-heart talks with her, have her do their hair, get help with homework. But still. She’s a part of their story. Someday they’ll be curious. They way it’s reportedly being handled, though, the kids get to be responsible for making an entire life just disappear — no memories, no  pictures, just … poof! She’s gone. Also, what’s that going to do to their relationship with their father when they find out they’ve been deceived — by a lot of the grown-ups around them?

What do you think? Is the father just doing his job? Does a severely disabled mother have a right to see her kids? Do her kids have rights? And what about the grandparents?

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Photo: LA Times

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