Can A Man With A Disability Stay In A Marriage He Might Not Understand?
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — In the cold and decidedly unromantic eyes of the law, “Marriage is a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between two persons, to which the consent of the parties capable of making that contract is necessary.”
So can a man like Ryan Morris — whose mental abilities at age 24 run at roughly a kindergarten level, with disabilities so severe he can’t think abstractly, manage money or care for himself — give informed consent to a marriage and sexual relationship?
And if he marries someone of normal intelligence — a spouse who then also becomes his court-appointed caretaker, empowered to make fundamental life decisions — does the answer change?
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Nearly two years after Ronald Moore expressed grave concerns about the welfare of his identical twin brother Ryan Morris, under the guardianship of Morris’s husband Sean Spicer, a Riverside County Superior Court judge is negotiating the profoundly uncomfortable questions raised by their marriage.
Moore and two of his aunts seek to oust Spicer, 42, as Morris’s legal guardian — or “conservator,” in California parlance — and step into that role themselves.
As opening statements began last week, Judge Sunshine Sykes said the trial would focus on a single question: Should Spicer be removed as Morris’ conservator? The marriage itself isn’t an issue this court needs to address, she said, a decision some experts feel is a mistake.
Moore’s attorney, Charles Krolikowski, told the judge that the Morris-Spicer union is problematic on several levels. For one, he said, Morris didn’t understand he was getting married, thinking instead the 2014 ceremony was a baptism. Also, by marrying Spicer, Morris lost both his Supplemental Security Income and his health benefits from Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid program. And, since they’ve been married, Morris has lashed out in episodes of violence that led to police intervention and psychiatric holds on three occasions.
Krolikowski also noted that Morris and Spicer share a double-wide mobile home in Romoland with Spicer’s aging parents, where the tension is so high that Spicer’s mother attempted suicide, refused to allow a court investigator onto the property, and called Morris “a manipulative piece of (excrement).”
“Ryan’s situation is toxic and needs to be changed,” Krolikowski said.
Spicer disagrees. He has said that Morris’ biological family is trying to break them apart because they don’t approve of gay marriage. “I love him with all my heart,” Spicer said from the witness stand.
Ryan Morris’ attorney, Mark J. Andrew Flory, said his client is an incredibly lucky man.
“We are going to do our best to keep this happy family together,” Flory said. “Not many people with developmental disabilities have found a spouse and a loving relationship. It’s something not to be challenged, but to be encouraged.”
Morris was in court to hear all this, a shift from earlier court dates when he stayed away. During the proceedings he alternately rocked back and forth, covered his ears with his hands to block out voices, and huddled over a cell phone with one of his attorneys, watching cartoons. His aunts and grandmother were in court as well, trying to catch his eye and saying, “I love you,” but Morris did not respond.
The case pits two fundamental rights against each other, experts said: The hard-won right for people with disabilities to marry and have sex lives, just like everyone else; and the right of those with disabilities to be protected from abuse and undue influence.
Morris has been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, behavior disorder, epilepsy and intellectual disability. He takes powerful medications.
Since Spicer became Morris’ conservator in 2015 — something Morris’ biological family originally supported — Morris has had increasingly violent outbursts, confusion about basics such as his age and the date, as well as deteriorating personal hygiene, according to court filings. He shows up at his day program with his face unshaven and hair uncombed, in dirty clothes and smelling as if he hadn’t showered in days, supervisors at the program told investigators.
There have been more than a dozen calls for service to the Spicers’ Romoland address since 2016, according to Riverside County Sheriff’s Department logs. Morris has hit Spicer’s mother several times, as well as his adoptive mother, and has hit Spicer, too, Spicer testified. In October, Morris was placed under a 5150 involuntary psychiatric hold after assaulting his mother-in-law.
“The most immediate and dangerous concern is Ryan’s current living situation — of him living with his spouse in the home of his spouse’s parents, under circumstances where violence is a recurring feature,” said Thomas Coleman, an attorney with the Spectrum Institute, a disability rights nonprofit that filed letters of concern with the court.
“This is a recipe for disaster,” Coleman said. “It could potentially turn into a suicide-homicide. The spouse and conservator has a legal obligation to provide a safe living environment for Ryan. If Sean Spicer can’t afford to live away from his parents, he should contact Adult Protective Services or reach out to the court or the court investigator and say, ‘I can’t handle this, I can’t afford a private placement for Ryan, and for his safety and the safety of my mother and everyone in household, I need help.’
“It’s a life-and-death matter that has been ignored by the conservator and is being downplayed, if not ignored, by the court,” Coleman said.
A court investigator interviewed Morris in September and asked him what marriage means. Morris said that marriage is love, according to the filings. Does Morris love Spicer? Yes, Morris said, adding, “He takes me to Disneyland and other amusement parks.”
Given his disabilities, Morris is vulnerable to “undue influence,” and flip-flops about what he wants and who he loves, according to court filings.
While Morris appeared thrilled to be reunited with his biological family in 2015 after more than a decade apart, he now says he hates them.
“You should call the cops on Zia,” Morris said at his July deposition, referring to his aunt Monica Mukai, one of those seeking to oust Spicer as conservator.
“Okay. Did Sean tell you to say that?” asked Krolikowski, the biological family’s attorney.
“Yeah. She needs to go to jail,” Morris said.
“You think Zia Monica should go to jail?” Krolikowski continued.
“Yeah, and Ronald.”
“Did Sean tell you to say that?”
“Yeah. And I hate the Mukais.”
“You hate the Mukais?”
“I — I don’t love the Mukais….”
“Did Sean tell you to say that?”
“Yeah. Even my mom says that. They’re horrible. I hate — I hate all the Mukais.”
Morris went on to say that his identical twin and biological family should die.
“Did someone tell you to say that?” Krolikowski asked.
“Uh, Sean,” Ryan answered.
“… What kind of gifts did Sean promise to you if you if you said certain things today?” Krolikowski asked.
“A Sony DVD player,” Morris said.
People with cognitive disabilities live in a “culture of compliance,” psychologist Nora J. Baladerian wrote in a statement of concern she filed with the court. “Ryan may have been manipulated into an arranged marriage to someone much older, who Ryan likely views as someone in a position of authority.
“I am concerned that Ryan may be a victim of sexual abuse or exploitation,” she wrote, urging the court to determine if Ryan has the capacity to consent to sexual activities. “These are matters that appear to have been glossed over or neglected in prior court proceedings.”
The court needs to determine if Morris understands that he has choices, said Baladerian, who, like Coleman, works with the Spectrum Institute.
The battle over what’s best for Morris has stretched on for more than two decades. Morris and Moore were swept into state custody shortly after their birth in 1994, due to their parents’ history of mental illness. Moore emerged healthy; Morris did not. Their grandmother sought custody of both boys, but got only Moore; Morris remained in foster care because of his many special needs, which social workers said were beyond his grandmother’s ability to address.
His foster mother, Michelle Morris, adopted Morris over his biological family’s objections, then cut off all communication with them. She became one of Morris’ conservators when he turned 18. Spicer met Ryan Morris when he worked in the Murrieta foster home Michelle Morris runs for people with severe disabilities.
Michelle Morris has filed to be re-appointed as conservator beside Spicer — something that Judge Sykes said would not be addressed right now.
The question of what Morris really wants haunts the proceedings. He has told his attorneys that he wants Spicer and Morris, his adopted mother, to be his conservators. But he also has said that he just wants to be friends with Sean, and doesn’t want Michelle Morris as conservator, instead preferring an uncle in that role, according to his deposition.
Coleman, of the Spectrum Institute, said this makes the case especially tricky for the judge.
“The court must look at the overall situation, evaluate Morris’ capacity to consent to marriage and his capacity to consent to sex, and consider the state’s duty to respect his rights as well as the state’s duty to protect him from abuse or exploitation, and ultimately decide what is in Ryan’s best interest,” Coleman wrote.
© 2018 The Orange County Register
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