Special Report: Justice for Jenny

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — The “Justice for Jenny” movement was more than efforts to help Jenny Hatch.

At the time, she was a 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome at the center of a civil rights movement with far-reaching national and international implications.

Back on August 2, 2013, after a six-day trial, Jenny Hatch came running out of the Newport News Circuit Courthouse. She had won her court case, and people yelled out, “Jenny got justice!”

Court’s Final Order | 2013

On that day, a judge ordered that Hatch can live where she wants and make her own decisions with the help of friends Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris. Because they were willing to work with Jenny, the judge ruled he could not find Jenny would always be incapacitated. She had the right not to be in a restrictive guardianship, where Jenny is told what to do, where to live and who to see.

10 On Your Side recently visited with Jenny to find out how she is adjusting.

“Oh my gosh, you’re here. I love you,” she greeted WAVY’s Andy Fox with a tight hug.

Three years after her court case, Jenny’s still happily living with Jim and Kelly in Hampton. She rides buses to her church, Christ United Methodist Church, where she is fully integrated in programs there. She works with the children, sings in the choir, and sometimes participates in bible studies.

“Jenny is a bright light of joy and she shares that with everybody else,” Pastor Tom Tipton says. “She has been doing a great job.”

Jenny says she loves her life.

“I’m happy. I love to be home with Kelly and Jim.”

Jenny’s case was the first trial in America establishing people with disabilities have the right to have Supported Decision-Making, where trusted friends, family and professionals help make life decisions. They work as a team to empower Jenny to be as independent as possible.

“I did the right thing, and I’m glad I won my case,” Jenny says. “That was a long nightmare.”

Talbert says he fully supports Jenny.

“Jenny knows we care deeply about her, but we want to see Jenny go on and be as independent as she can.”

Talbert and Morris have provided a wonderful home setting for Jenny. The beautiful home overlooks a waterway on Grandview Island in Hampton.

“Do you like living out here?” Andy asked Jenny.

“I really do,” she answered.

Jenny lives in a second floor bedroom above Jim and Kelly.

“I’m so happy to be home… because I love to be here with my friends,” Jenny says with emotion.

In Jenny’s bedroom, she’s surrounded by pictures from that day three years ago. They show her attorney, Jonathan Martinis, holding up her hand in victory.

“If you are someone who believes in rights, who believes in justice, then you need to know the world  changed that day,” said Martinis, who is now Senior Director for Law and Policy at the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University.

Following the case, Martinis established “The Jenny Hatch Justice Project.” The website reads, “The JHJP is an integrated, multi-faceted resource and outreach center dedicated to advancing people with disabilities’ right to make their own choices and determine their own path and direction in life.”

Martinis travels the country, sometimes with Jenny by his side, pushing alternatives to restrictive over-broad guardianship. Jenny has spoken at states including Vermont, New York, California, Florida, and Washington D.C.

“A person should not be placed under guardianship if there is a less restrictive alternative.”

To that end, Martinis has helped enact new laws in Texas and Delaware. Currently, he’s in Vermont, which now has the first task force implementing Supported Decision-Making as a new state-wide initiative.

As for Virginia, a 2014 study recommended adding Supported Decision-Making to law, but the General Assembly never acted on the study.

Martinis is very complimentary of the judge that oversaw Jenny’s case, Newport News Circuit Court Judge David F. Pugh.

“Judge Pugh changed the guardianship world,” Martinis says. “Judge Pugh’s decision has set the tone for Supported Decision-Making, and that case caught the attention of people. None of the good things happen without the wisdom and courage of Judge Pugh’s decision. It would have been easier for Judge Pugh to put her in a restrictive guardianship.”

“He is very kind with his words,” Judge Pugh told WAVY News. “The one thing Jenny Hatch had was, she had support.”

Judge Pugh became the first judge in a trial to order Supported Decision-Making instead of a more restrictive Guardianship.

“We really want to have these individuals to be made part of the community. It is not just about housing them in group homes, but allowing them to make decisions as to how they choose to live.”

In his order, Judge Pugh noted testimony that Jenny has, “lower extreme intelligence… second and third grade in reading, writing, and math skills… living skills in a low functioning range.”

But then, on the fifth page of Pugh’s seven-page order, he wrote the word, “however.” Andy asked Judge Pugh to continue reading the order.

“However, the court is required by statute…”

Andy stopped Judge Pugh in mid-sentence because that word “however” gave indication to Jenny that she had won and Judge Pugh was going to rule in her favor.

“Sir, do you realize how important that word — ‘however’ — was to Jenny Hatch? That you were going to rule in her favor?” Andy asked Pugh.

After a pause, Judge Pugh responded: “I do think it changed the tone to everything that had happened earlier.”

The tone was everything. Judge Pugh had set a positive tone for people who are living with disabilities.

The remaining paragraph reads:

However, the court is required by statute… to give due deference to the preferences of the Respondent [Jenny Hatch], and whatever its origin, based upon the Respondent’s animus toward her mother, the Court cannot conclude that it is in Respondent’s best interest for Petitioners [Jenny’s mother Julia S. Ross] to court as her guardians.”

Due to their strained relationship, Jenny did not want to live with her mother, or in a group home. Ross’ preference was for Jenny to be in a group home.

Before the trial, Jenny had runaway three times from group homes. She did not want to live in a group home. Jenny wanted to live with her friends, Jim and Kelly, and because they were able to support her, Judge Pugh thought that would be the best fit for Jenny because that is what she wanted.

Today, Jenny still works in Jim and Kelly’s thrift store, Village Thrift. She’s been there for eight years.

Jenny mostly lives independently, which is exactly what Judge Pugh hoped his decision would do.

“When I saw the Jenny Hatch case, and I thought about it, this is what the end game came down to: to give her independence, and  to allow her in a community where she is not stigmatized, where she was not in a group home or setting away from the public.”

Pugh is retiring January 31 after serving 27 years as a judge. To this day, he considers the Jenny Hatch case one of his most memorable, “because of how difficult the issues were,” he says.