Hard Won Independence

In over 32 years of civil rights legal work, I have represented a wide variety of unique individuals in a lot of unusual cases. Many of my cases involve people with disabilities fighting for the right to live the independent lives that all of us wish to enjoy.

Some of my cases involve people who have to fight for independence on multiple fronts. One such case came my way earlier this year, when I was contacted by Nick Rabinowicz, who left his parents home in Massachusetts in late December, 2016, upon turning 18, and moved to Madison. His parents petitioned a Massachusetts court for guardianship over Nick and were awarded temporary guardianship without a hearing. Nick retained me to fight for his independence and get his parents’ petition for guardianship dismissed.

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When Nick came to meet me, he informed me that he was a transgender man who was a high functioning person with autism. He showed me his parents’ petition  for guardianship which alleged that Nick was incompetent because, among other things, he did not shower every day. Although failing to shower every day is certainly not an indicator of legal incompetence, I asked Nick about this, and he provided a perfectly rational response. He told me that on days he does not work out, he might not shower, and on days, he does get sweaty, he might shower twice.

In telling me the story of how he left home, took a train to Chicago on his own, got a ride to Madison, rented an apartment, enrolled in high school, and ultimately found and retained me to fight for his legal independence, it was very clear to me that Nick had every right to live a free and independent life and not have his rights stripped and given over to his overbearing parents through guardianship. As I am not licensed to practice law in Massachusetts, I attempted to convince his parents’ attorney to drop the case, but his parents were unwilling to do so. Even worse, his parents were interfering with Nick’s ability to live independently by refusing to provide him with his health insurance card, his passport and his Social Security card.

Fortunately, despite the barriers presented by his parents, Nick successfully enrolled in La Follette High School in Madison, and graduated this past June. In fighting his guardianship, he was able to obtain very supportive affidavits from his teachers, who were very impressed by Nick. One of his teacher’s beautifully described Nick:

He is an informed citizen of local, national and international news and demonstrated the ability to critically evaluate sources of information and to use acquired information to inform personal decision-making and support his thinking.

In all my years of teaching, Nick’s creative writing is some of the highest quality and most compelling student work I have read. He demonstrates many cultural interests and the ability to both appreciate and create works of art that explore the human experience.

Nick demonstrated the ability to identify himself as a student with autism, explain his learning challenges, and advocate for his learning and social/emotional needs. I observed him respectfully ask to be seated in another area of the classroom where he could focus better, and on occasion during work time, request to move to a quieter location with fewer distractions. Understanding one’s disability and independently and appropriately explaining and advocating for one’s needs is a complex skill that I do not often observe in high school students.

Since the case was in Massachusetts, I arranged for Nick to retain Marty Flax, an attorney who practices in the Boston area, whom I have known for many years, as his local counsel. Recently, Marty and I were pleased to be able to tell Nick that the court had dismissed his parents’ petition for guardianship, and Nick was free to pursue his life as he sees fit.

While guardianship can be appropriate for some people, many do not realize that short of imprisonment, it is the most severe legal denial of civil rights that our law permits. While I do not know all the reasons why Nick’s parents believed that Nick was legally incompetent and sought legal control  over his life, I suspect that being a transgender man with autism had a lot to do with it. I am very glad that I was able to help Nick assert and obtain his legal independence and I look forward to watching him do great things with his life. As his recent picture shows, he is a happy young man, as he deserves to be now that he is free of his parents’ legal challenge to his independence.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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