(WXYZ) — A Wayne County Probate Judge recently made a historic decision. Instead of putting a Dearborn Heights woman under guardianship, he allowed her to retain her independence with something called Supported Decision-Making.
If you’re put under guardianship, that means a court has declared you legally incapacitated. You lose the right to get married, decide what doctor you want to see, or even choose where you want to live. Now one woman with an intellectual disability has shown the state that there is another tool families can use that’s less extreme than guardianship.
Linda VanWormer loves her job. The 56-year-old works at STEP (Services to Enhance Potential) in Dearborn. She also just made history in Michigan.
That’s because Wayne County Chief Probate Judge Freddie Burton Junior just issued an order, denying a petition that would have put Linda under guardianship. Instead, he granted her the freedom to make her own choices using something called Supported Decision-Making, or SDM.
“I do call the shots now,” Linda told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
Linda has an intellectual disability. She was adopted at the age of 5 into a big family of 6 other siblings. Her younger sister Amy Peckinpaugh has always been one of Linda’s main sources of help, support and love.
“I'm very proud,” said Amy Peckinpaugh.
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Back in 2011, Amy found out Linda’s boyfriend was abusing her. So, Amy petitioned the court for partial guardianship of Linda.
“It allowed me to say that Linda couldn't go back up north and live with her abuser,” said Amy. “I had to make that decision to protect her. And so that is why I did that. But it meant I took that right from her. She couldn't consent to treatment. She couldn't decide where she wanted to move.”
After 10 years of guardianship, Amy decided to restore Linda’s rights. Linda lives in a group home with friends, she works, and they use Supported Decision-Making when Linda needs a little extra help.
“Linda uses her family, her friends, providers that support her when she wants to make a decision, she comes to them, and if she needs some extra input, she'll say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this,’” said Amy.
Amy and Linda even hired an attorney to create estate planning documents so Amy can step in to make medical and legal decisions if needed.
But then, a mix up at Linda’s mental health support agency prompted a social worker to petition the court to put Linda back under guardianship.
“Now we're stuck in the system and we have to actually go to court and fight. And at that point, I was really angry. I work in the disability community-- I lost some faith. How are we doing this to people? It's not okay,” said Amy.
The agency quickly realized their mistake and hired lawyers and experts to help Linda fight the guardianship.
“My favorite question when it comes to guardianship, what else have you tried? Before we decide to take rights away, shouldn't we ask that question? Rights are precious,” said Jonathan Martinis, the Senior Director for Law and Policy at the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University.
In courts across the country, Martinis has successfully argued adults with disabilities don’t always need the extreme step of guardianship. He says they can use Supported Decision-Making instead.
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“For people with disabilities who have for thousands of years been assumed not to be able to do things, what Supported Decision-Making is, is a way to be like you and me to the maximum of their abilities. Because it says that people with disabilities can understand things if it's explained to them,” said Martinis.
Linda and Amy say at first the judge was skeptical because there’s nothing in Michigan’s laws that establish SDM. But after listening to Linda and to experts, Judge Burton issued a detailed opinion, agreeing that Linda and her family can make decisions about her life together without a guardian.
“I was so happy and relieved,” said Linda.
“Hopefully it paves the way for other individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to use Supported Decision-Making and other people to look at, including social workers,” said Amy.
“Judge Burton’s order demonstrates how Supported Decision-Making (SDM) is a less-restrictive alternative to a guardianship order in Michigan. Any judge in the state can use SDM as an alternative to guardianship without any change in Michigan law. Disability Rights Michigan would support legislation to modify guardianship statutes in Michigan, requiring judges to consider SDM as an alternative to guardianship. This simple change, coupled with increased education and awareness of SDM, will lead to less unnecessary guardianships and more independence and freedom for citizens with disabilities in Michigan,” said Kyle Williams, Director of Litigation for Disability Rights Michigan.
23 states have added Supported Decision-Making as an option to their laws. Now Linda and Amy want Michigan to do the same, and Linda is already lobbying lawmakers to get changes made.
“I want people to know my story and so they can make better decisions on their own by themselves,” said Linda.
If you have a story for Heather, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.