Couple Presses ADA Claim Years After Children Removed
A new chapter began in a federal courtroom this week in a Connecticut couple’s 11-year fight to show that they would have been fit parents to their two boys had the state’s child-protection agency ever given them a chance.
The Department of Children and Families went to the hospital and removed their two sons at birth under the controversial doctrine of “predictive neglect.” It means the agency decided that Karin Hasemann and Joey Watley would not be able to take care of the boys, based on mental-health diagnoses made by DCF psychologists.
The boys, Joey Jr., now 11, and Danny, now 10, were placed in foster care and then adopted.
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The couple’s parental rights were terminated after three trials in state court. Last year, they won an appeal for a new trial in federal court.
Hasemann, 48, and Watley, 62, will never see their children again. But they say their assertion that DCF violated their rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act is an injustice worth pursuing.
“DCF has given Karin and me a life sentence,” said Watley, who lives with his ailing mother in Thomaston, Conn. Hasemann lives with her parents in Watertown, Conn.
Starting with a hearing this week, the couple will again set out to prove that DCF erred by taking the boys without offering them an opportunity to show they could raise them. Both argue that they had extended families willing to help, which DCF disputes. They don’t agree with the diagnoses, but say that if they do have disabilities, as DCF insists, then they were entitled to reasonable accommodations from the department.
Dan Barrett, lead lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, is now part of the Watley-Hasemann legal team.
“Our interest is insuring that parents with disabilities, or those regarded as having disabilities, are given the level playing field guaranteed by the ADA at all stages of DCF proceedings,” Barrett said Monday.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert N. Chatigny took up DCF’s motion to have the couple’s lawsuit thrown out once and for all. The judge pressed both sides on a key point: If DCF took into account any disabilities the parents may have had, and made reasonable efforts to reunite the couple with their children, as the state judge found it had, then wouldn’t that effort have satisfied the Americans With Disabilities Act at the same time?
Assistant State Attorney General Jane Rosenberg said it certainly would have, and added that the couple had ample opportunity to argue their ADA claims during the state court proceedings.
Andrew O’Toole, the couple’s co-counsel, said the ADA has additional requirements not contemplated by state law, and that the couple was barred from raising an ADA defense in state court.
“This is about rights afforded by a federal statute that were never fully litigated,” O’Toole said. “How else (but in federal court) would this get fixed? How else will it be known that the ADA does apply to DCF proceedings?”
Chatigny will issue a written ruling later. If he rejects the motion to dismiss, both sides would ask the judge to declare a victor based on the court filings. If the judge decides the case should be argued on its merits, a trial would follow.
After an earlier lawsuit was dismissed, Watley and Hasemann appealed to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
In January 2016, they were awarded a new trial before Chatigny.
They “have never stopped, and will never stop, loving their children,” O’Toole wrote in the couple’s complaint. “They bring this action … so that there can never be any doubt they they did everything possible to remedy the violations of their rights.”
O’Toole said the couple also wants to stop the department from discriminating against “other parents with mental or cognitive disabilities (and) those perceived to have such disabilities.”
The couple is seeking monetary damages.
Watley had been diagnosed by DCF psychologists and psychiatrists with “personality disorder — unspecified.” When Hasemann was 16, she had a benign brain tumor surgically removed. Since then, she has been diagnosed with narcolepsy. Other diagnoses include attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder; major depression; chronic functional impairments; cognitive defects; and other “unspecified” psychological difficulties,” O’Toole stated in the appeal brief.
In the couple’s appeal, O’Toole asserted that Hasemann has received a series of “inconsistent and conflicting” psychological evaluations that were ordered by DCF. Watley has characterized his diagnosis as the “common cold” of mental health.
DCF’s lawyer, Rosenberg, argued during the appeal that the mental health conditions of the parents were of enough concern to remove the children. She said DCF took every reasonable, even extraordinary, measure to help the parents, providing them with mental health evaluations, counseling, therapy and parent education. But she said in the end the parents failed to convince DCF that they could be adequate parents.
In a key exchange, Rosenberg said that she believed that the experts DCF put forth under its state mandates to provide services to parents also satisfied any claim the couple might have under the ADA.
But the circuit-court judges did not seem to agree that services provided under state law would automatically satisfy the ADA.
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