After 13 years and a dozen trials and appeals, a Connecticut couple’s battle to prove that the state’s child-protection agency never gave them the chance to show they could have been fit parents may have come to an end.
A federal judge has dismissed Joey Watley and Karin Hasemann’s complaint that the Department of Children and Families pronounced them mentally disabled and ended their parental rights prematurely. Their case had resonated with many civil-rights advocates and with a team of lawyers who took up their case for free.
The Department of Children and Families went to the hospital and removed their two sons at birth in 2005 and 2006 under the controversial doctrine of “predictive neglect.”
It means the agency decided that Hasemann, of Watertown, and Watley, of Thomaston, would not be able to take care of the children, based on mental-health diagnoses made by DCF psychologists. Three years earlier, DCF had removed Hasemann’s newborn daughter for the same reasons. The children were adopted and are said to be doing well.
The couple fired back, saying in a lawsuit that DCF never gave them the chance to demonstrate that their extended families would have helped them raise the children. This refusal to make “reasonable accommodations” to keep the children with their parents violated the couple’s rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, the couple said.
But in a ruling dated Dec. 23, U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny found that for the couple’s lawsuit to proceed, he would have to find fault with, and undo, a string of state-court rulings that went against the couple. He said the federal district court lacks the power and jurisdiction to do that.
“I recognize the profoundly serious nature of the harm for which plaintiffs seek redress,” Chatigny wrote in the 69-page decision. “I also appreciate the role and responsibility of the federal district court in ensuring access to a federal trial proceeding for persons whose federal rights have been violated by state officials.
Chatigny explained that “a claim in federal court that parental rights have been unlawfully terminated due to discrimination on the basis of disability necessarily asks the federal court to review the state court’s decision and either vacate it or award damages or both.”
The judge said “few principles are as firmly established as the rule that prohibits federal district courts from reviewing decisions of state courts.”
Dan Barrett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and part of the couple’s legal team, said the ruling “is a blow to our clients and to parents with disabilities, and my heart goes out to Ms. Hasemann and Mr. Watley.”
Barrett said that in his view, the ruling means “parents who claim the state violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when terminating their parental rights must sue in state court, even when the state courts refuse to consider those allegations.”
DCF alleged that Hasemann and Watley each had a psychiatric disability that precluded them from being adequate parents and keeping their children safe. The agency asked the state courts to permanently terminate the couple’s parental relationship to the children.
Barrett said that while the court cases were pending, “state law required DCF to provide Hasemann and Watley with services to remedy whatever parental shortcomings DCF alleged them to have.
“Yet during the proceedings, Watley and Hasemann repeatedly told the courts that … although DCF was attempting to terminate their parental rights based on their perceived disabilities, DCF was not tailoring the services it gave them to those disabilities. The state courts refused to hear their ADA claims.”
Through all the cases, DCF maintained that it had given the couple every chance to show that they could be fit and involved parents. The agency also argued that certain provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply in child-protection cases.
It all started, Judge Chatigny noted, when the hospital became alarmed at Hasemann’s reaction to the birth of her daughter in 2002.
“The hospital contacted DCF due to Ms. Hasemann’s response to Kristina’s birth,” the judge wrote, recounting previous court testimony. “She ‘insisted the girl was a boy, [that the baby had] had a heart attack, and [that she] should be fed in an unusual and inappropriate pattern even though the food intake for this premature baby was crucial.’”
Citing previous court testimony, Chatigny said Hasemann “was found to have severe narcolepsy, schizotypal personality disorder, attentiondeficit/hyperactivity disorder, chronic functional impairments, cognitive disorder not otherwise specified, cognitive deficits, antisocial personality disorder, and major depression. [She also] may suffer from the residual effects of a frontal lobe brain tumor removal that occurred when she was sixteen.
“With this decision, the federal court has effectively decided that there is no way for parents with disabilities, real or perceived by the government, to vindicate their federal anti-discrimination rights. People with disabilities should be able to be parents, including with help if they need it. The ADA forbids discrimination against people with disabilities, including parents, and state and federal courts should not be able to wash their hands of their responsibilities to uphold it,” Barrett said.
Judge Chaitigny wrote that because “no state court squarely addressed” the couple’s ADA claims, “plaintiffs submit that they should be able to litigate them here. Defendants [DCF officials] argue that plaintiffs cannot obtain relief on the claims … without asking this court to review and reject decisions made by the state courts. Defendants’ assessment is accurate.”