Family Matters

Should a Disabled Mom Be Banned from Seeing Her Kids?

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There are laws in this country about not discriminating against people with disabilities. So I find it completely confusing that Abbie Dorn, who was left brain-damaged after the birth of her triplets in 2006, has been prohibited from seeing her children because her husband fears the kids will be traumatized.

It’s true that Dorn, a paraplegic at 34, can’t physically do much. But a neurologist has said she can sometimes blink in response to yes-no questions. She can hear sounds and see images. That means, apparently, that she can hear the chatter of her preschoolers and see their sturdy 4-year-old bodies. And that means they should be visiting her, both for Dorn’s sake and for their own.

On Friday, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge agreed, ruling that Dorn’s children can visit her for five consecutive days each year. That will entail the children, who live in California, hopping a plane to visit their mother, who now lives with her parents in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (More on Could Mom’s Stroke Predict Her Daughter’s Heart Attack?)

“The court finds that even though [Dorn] cannot interact with the children, the children can interact with [Dorn] — and that the interaction is beneficial for the children,” wrote Judge Frederick Shaller. “They can touch her, see her, bond with her, and can carry those memories with them.”

When Dorn heard the decision, her mother, Susan Cohen, told the Los Angeles Times that she smiled. “I told her about the visit this summer…. She gave me a long, long blink and another huge smile.”

The ruling is a temporary one, until a trial can take place, but it’s an indication that permanent visitation is likely.

“It’s not ethical to say because she’s handicapped that she can’t in some ways appreciate or be benefited from seeing them,” says Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “The children should know what is going on with their mom, that she didn’t abandon them.”

Although it’s significant that at least for now the judge is confirming Dorn’s right to see her kids, it seems strange that the visits are controlled by Dan Dorn, Abbie Dorn’s ex-husband who divorced her after the arrival of the triplets ended in catastrophe. He can decide which extended family members can be present — giving him the right to bar the grandparents, for example. (More on Time.comGrandma Gives Birth to her Grandchild: Weird or Wonderful?)

Grandparents don’t have the same rights as parents, but because the Cohens are acting as their daughter’s parental surrogate, they have even more of a claim to seeing their grandchildren than the average grandma or grandpa. “In this case, they are functioning as de facto parents,” says Caplan.

The judge also ordered monthly Skype visits for Dorn and the kids and required Dan Dorn, who didn’t even tell the children about their mother until recently, to essentially create a shrine in his home in her honor, setting aside a space for photographs and memorabilia that is “open and available to the children 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.”

Children are much more resilient than adults give them credit for. With the proper psychological preparation — something along the lines of, Mommy can’t talk to you because she’s sick, but she hears you and she loves you — Dorn’s children should be able to visit their mother and emerge with an understanding and a child’s appreciation of the woman whose DNA they share. (More on Time.comDad Helping with the Kids? Moms: Expect Conflict, Not Cooperation)

Is there ever a case in which a mother shouldn’t be allowed to see her children? Perhaps in the case of severe mental illness that could erupt into violence, a no-visitation policy might be in order. But even in a situation of extreme disfigurement, Caplan says the mother-child bond is sacred. “It might be disturbing, but that tie is so strong that you have to do what you can to maintain it,” he says. “Even in people who are adopted, the drive to know their biological parent is enormous. We are in a culture that values that.”

Failure to cultivate a relationship for the children with their mother, wrote Shaller, is likely to cause them “psychological harm that will negatively affect their development and their relationship with their father.”

Experiencing vulnerability creates compassion. Dorn’s kids will learn that people with disabilities aren’t scary or bad; they’re just not as lucky. Early on, young children realize that things don’t always go according to plan. “That’s not fair” is a favorite refrain around my house. What happened to Abbie Dorn through a series of medical mishaps isn’t fair. But neither is keeping a mother from her children.