Breaking Ground 110 - Two Restorations

By Elisa Hertzan, Esq., Disability Rights TN

Words to know for this article

  • Restoration – returning something to the way it was before; giving something back to its right owner
  • Terminate – to end
  • Conservatorship - If an adult with a disability cannot make their own decisions, the court can legally assign someone else to make decisions for them. The person the court assigns to make decisions is called a “conservator.”
  • Circle of support – trusted friends or family who help someone make decisions

I was hired by Disability Rights Tennessee (“DRT”) to be their supported decision-making attorney. DRT was awarded a two-year grant from the Council on Developmental Disabilities to grow supported decision-making in Tennessee. The grant would allow me to represent clients who wanted to end their conservatorships.

Jen Cook was a 37-year-old woman with a mild intellectual disability.  She had been in a conservatorship for as long as she could remember and was ready to make her own decisions.  She wanted her independence.

Cindy Gardner, an attorney who was Jen’s conservator, called me to talk about terminating Jen’s conservatorship.  It was clear that Cindy adored Jen. They had spent many afternoons together, cheering on the Lady Vols and eating out at Jen’s favorite restaurants. Ms. Gardner had always encouraged Jen to make as many of her own decisions as possible. She favored ending Jen’s conservatorship.

Terminating a conservatorship in Tennessee should be easy, but it’s not. The first step would be to have Jen examined by a doctor to see if she could make her own decisions.  The doctor agreed that Jen was very capable of making her own decisions. The case could proceed.

I filed a motion with the Chancery Court in Hamilton County asking to terminate Jen’s conservatorship. The court scheduled a hearing on April 20, 2021. Jen and I worked hard to prepare for the hearing.  She would have to convince the judge that she could make her own decisions and could rely on her circle of support for help.

One week before the hearing date, I suffered the loss of a lot of my vision.  Vision loss is frightening, and the doctors weren’t sure if or when my sight would be restored. I could not represent Jen under these circumstances. She had worked so hard. I thought she would be disappointed.  I worked up the courage to call Jen and told her about my vision loss. Jen asked if the case would be postponed. “Yes,” I answered, “and I’m so very sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Jen scolded. “I know what it’s like to have a disability. I’ve waited a long time to end my conservatorship. I’ll just wait a little longer.”

I wanted to hug her. The court was just as kind. They agreed to reschedule the hearing and wished me a speedy recovery. It took six months, but much of my vision returned. My vision loss and restoration helped me appreciate what it would mean for Jen to have her lost rights restored.

On December 22, 2021, the court agreed to end Jen’s conservatorship. We won! I worked with Sevita, Jen’s service provider, to set up some extra supports. We set up an ABLE account to help Jen save money and a healthcare directive to explain what medical decisions she wants in an emergency.

Jen and I are both doing great. We know we were brought together to love and support each other on this journey. We learned that whatever your disability, special people will journey with you. No one is ever alone.

Thank you to Disability Rights Tennessee, to Cindy Gardner, and to the Council on Developmental Disabilities for bringing me and Jen together. Finally, I want to give a special shout-out to the Tennessee Center for Decision-Making Supports, which offers help about using supported decision-making:

Elisa Hertzan has practiced law for more than 30 years. She joined Disability Rights Tennessee in Oct. 2020 as their Supported Decision-Making Attorney.  Prior to joining DRT, Elisa was the Executive Director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Middle and West TN.  Elisa is committed to advancing supported decision-making and advocating on behalf of those with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Elisa has volunteered with Better Decisions, an organization that teaches reentry skills to women leaving prison and has coauthored reentry training manuals and tools for volunteer instructors.