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E-Michigan Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.

News: September 2002

Cochlear Implant Court in Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS – A Wyoming mother who is deaf wants a state judge to halt efforts by other state officials to force her two deaf children to have surgery that may give them some hearing.

Says Lee Larsen of her kids and the proposal to surgically install cochlear implants, “They (the children) are mine. It is my decision … not the court’s.” Cochlear implants are small electronic devices surgically implanted behind the ear and connected to the body’s hearing nerves to provide some hearing.

Larsen’s pleas to leave to her the decision about whether the elective surgery is appropriate for her two sons, ages three and four, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. She said she thinks it doesn't work, and that it's "dangerous:” to her sons. The boys’ father, Kelly Robinson, also opposes the operation, according to his attorney, Gary Kovitz. Robinson lives in California.

The issue arose some months ago after the Family Court temporarily removed custody of the boys from Larsen; at the time it instructed her to take parenting classes, which she is doing, before making a permanent decision on her parental rights.

That decision is expected between now and November.

In the interim, the court appointed an attorney to represent her sons, who currently live in foster care. The attorney, Joseph Tevlin, asked Family Court Judge Kathleen Feeney to order the surgeries after the youths’ school officials expressed concerns about their progress in school.

He explained: “They (the boys) are losing; they are not gaining language.”

According to Tevlin, officials at the school attended by the youths, Shawnee Park Elementary in Grand Rapids said Larsen's children were falling behind their peers, most of whom either have implants or are scheduled to get them. The school offers an oral education program for deaf children that does not include instruction in American Sign Language, the preferred language for many deaf persons.

He readily admits he made the decision to seek the implants over Larsen’s long–standing objections, expressed previously to school officials. But he defended his action.

“Is it neglect not to have a cochlear implant when the bulk of the research shows everyone benefits?” he asked.

Larsen’s attorney says emphatically no, arguing first that it’s his client’s right to make such decisions about her kids, and secondly that the children’s deafness by itself is not a handicap and doesn’t need to be fixed. While he agrees other schools of other kinds of educational support may benefit the children, he agrees with deaf advocates who argue deafness isn’t something that needs to be fixed.

At one point another attorney in the cast asked Larsen, “How will they (the kids) get along…” without the implant. She replied, “I’m deaf and I get along.”

Testimony is scheduled to continue in the case on Oct. 4 in Feeney’s courtroom in the Grand Rapids State Courthouse. In the meantime, Feeney has ordered the children be evaluated for implants, and that funding be located to pay for the procedures.

Nevertheless, Feeney admonished onlookers at the latest hearing on Sept. 8 to not think she had already made her decision. “The testing is no indication of how the Court will rule,” she said. “The court has not made up its mind.”

The case has attracted increasing attention from members of the Deaf community. Feeney announced she had received numerous electronic mail messages on the issue, but said she was unable to consider them since they were not submitted in court.

Others familiar with the case say they expect legal briefs to be submitted for the judge’s consideration by other groups interested in the case, including advocacy groups for the Deaf. In addition, the state’s Family Independence Agency has flipped–flopped its position from supporting the surgery to opposing it, according to attorneys in the case.

See related article about “The Cochlear Implant Trial" by Cal Montgomery at

We now have the Judge’s court address and e–mail address to distribute to interested individuals. PLEASE send your comments to the Judge and let her know how concerned the Community is. Also, if you “Cc:” a copy to me at..., I will forward the comments to the Judge to mom’s attorney. Her addresses are:

E mail (per state bar journal directory) ––

The Division on Deaf and Hard of Hearing, is a part of the Michigan Commission on Disability Concerns within the Family Independence Agency.

Recently, news and email messages talked about the possibility of forcing cochlear implants on several children in foster care in Kent Co. (Grand Rapids). I want to assure you that the DODHH has gathered information and is working closely with the Family Independence Agency on this issue.

At this time, the DODHH fully supports the FIA position and policy that elective surgeries for children temporarily out of their home are up to the parents.

A hearing scheduled for September 5 has been set for the court to hear more testimony from the medical community and other interested parties in the area of cochlear implants.

Chris Hunter, Director
Division on Deaf & Hard of Hearing – FIA
320 N. Washington Square Ste 250
PO Box 30659
Lansing, MI 48909
517–334–8000 T/V
877–499–6232 T/V
517–334–6637 Fax

My name is Claudia Lee and I work as a Deafness Resource Consultant with Deaf Community Advocacy Network in Pontiac, MI. We learned last week that there is a case in Grand Rapids that will have a final hearing date on September 5, 2002. There is concern about the outcome of this case because the decision made will effect more than just the Deaf Community; other disabilities groups could find themselves in similar court cases if the rights of this Deaf parent are not respected by the court.

The case involves a Deaf mother whose two Deaf children were made wards of the state a little over a year ago due to her neglect. She has been in rehab and is taking steps to have custody awarded back. Parental rights were not permanently terminated. While the court has temporary custody of the children, the local oral deaf school wants the children to undergo cochlear implant surgery. The mother does not want the surgeries to be performed.

Cochlear implants have been a controversial issue in the Deaf Community. Currently, it is the opinion of those observing three days of testimony that the Judge is leaning toward ordering the surgeries to be performed. The case has been argued based on whether CI's are the right or wrong thing to do for the children.

However, a larger issue is at stake. Since the parental rights are not permanently terminated should the court violate the rights of the parents to decide not to have the surgeries performed by ordering these “ELECTIVE” surgeries while they are wards of the court? This is not a life threatening situation. Should a court make a life-long decision while having temporary custody of the children?

I’ve talked to attorneys and even a local Judge who do not believe a Judge would rule against a parent's decision when they have not had their parental rights permanently terminated. For whatever reason the parents do not want the surgeries, (cultural, risks, long term effects, etc.), it is still their decision to be made.

If the court makes the decision to order the implants, this could have effects on other disabilities as well. If a parent has a legally blind child and a professional says that surgery could restore some vision but could also result in total blindness, should the parent be able to decide to take the surgical risk or not for this elective surgery? Or if a parent has a paraplegic child and doctors state that surgery could restore some mobility but could also result in the child’s becoming quadriplegic, can a court take away the rights of the parents who are concerned with the surgical risks because a professional with clout states it is the best interest of the child?

This is really a civil rights issue The attorney handling the case is now networking with individuals involved with civil rights issues. This is not a case to say a cochlear implant is a good or bad thing, but about the right of a parent to decide if his/her child should undergo elective surgery with the risks involved.

Please give me your feedback. If you would like more details in this case, I will be happy to put you in contact with the attorneys involved.

Thank you for your consideration of this issue.

Claudia Lee
Deaf Community Advocacy Network
248–332–3323 tty 248–332–3331 v

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