Abbie Dorn, with therapist Heidi McGovern, was severely disabled when her brain was starved of oxygen after giving birth to triplets. She and her parents are in a protracted custody dispute with her ex-husband.
Abbie Dorn is confined to a wheelchair and hasn't held her triplets since the day they were born. Last month her children, who live in L.A., spent time with her in South Carolina.
Abbie Dorn sat in her high-backed wheelchair, a white board resting across her lap, head tilted a little to the left.
Arrayed on the board in front of the silent 34-year-old on this Thursday afternoon in early December were small sheets of paper, each printed with a single word. Happy. Sad. Scared. Anxious. Excited.
"Abbie," prompted speech-language pathologist Sarah Gerace, "how do you feel about your children coming to visit?"
The motionless woman cast her eyes to the word "happy." A moment later, they shifted to "sad." "Did you mean happy, Abbie?" Gerace queried. Abbie blinked in response. "Did you mean sad?" She blinked again. "Did you mean happy and sad?" Another blink, long and definitive
Two months after Abbie turned 30, Esti, Reuvi and Yossi were born at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The triplets, now 4 1/2, were strong and healthy, but a series of medical errors eventually left their young mother largely unable to move or communicate except by blinking.
Abbie has held her babies just once: the day they were born. She and her husband, Dan, have since divorced, and they are locked in an angry legal struggle over the children they once dreamed of and prayed for.
Abbie is fighting for visitation through her parents, Susan and Paul Cohen, who have been named her conservators. Dan has argued in court that seeing their disabled mother would cause the children grave harm and that he, as their only "fit" parent, has the ultimate right to make decisions about their care.
By the time of the speech therapy visit, Abbie had not seen her children for more than three years. But now, they were due to arrive in just four days for a secret visit that not even the court was aware of.
And how was she? Happy, Susan said, recounting the speech therapy visit. And sad.
The Dorn case has been in and out of Los Angeles County Superior Court for nearly a year, wending its way slowly toward trial. The children, who live in Los Angeles with their father, have been evaluated by a psychologist, Abbie, who lives in South Carolina with her parents, has been examined by a neurologist. A gag order was put in place to keep all parties silent about the visit, and then was lifted last week.
Throughout the contentious process, the attorneys' arguments have largely stayed the same, though their volume has risen with the passing months.
Vicki J. Greene, who represents Dan, has argued in documents and in court that "the constitutional right to visit with one's children is reserved for fit parents only."
Abbie does not fill that bill, she says, because she "is incapable of communication (blinking is merely reflexive) and more likely than not, would not know or acknowledge her children if they were standing before her."
Paul and Susan Cohen, she told Judge Frederick C. Shaller during a December hearing, "are trying to get grandparent visitation rights in the guise of getting it for their daughter…No matter how sad, no matter how cruel, they don't have the right to do that."
Greene has asked that the trial be split in two, that only if Abbie could actually express her desire to see the triplets during a competency phase would the fight over visitation commence. Both Shaller and Judge Rudolph Diaz, who heard the case's early actions, disagreed.
The children's psychological evaluation has been sealed from public view. But in a six-page neurological report filed in July, Dr. Angela N. Hays said that the children's mother is in a "minimally conscious state" and that it is "unreasonable to hope that she will return to anything approximating" her abilities before her brain was starved for oxygen after childbirth.
Hays, who specializes in "neurological emergencies" at the Medical University of South Carolina, said it is impossible to know whether Abbie can understand speech or interpret what she sees.
"However, it is clear that she can at least perceive images and sounds," Hays concluded. And "I cannot exclude the possibility that she may retain the capacity to recognize family members and derive some enjoyment from social interaction."
To Lisa Helfend Meyer, who represents Abbie, the case is both simple and critically important. Unless Dan can show that visitation would be a detriment to the children, who live with him in Los Angeles, Abbie has a constitutional right to see them, regardless of whether she can talk.
The case is about one mother, she says, and all parents with disabilities. Meyer told Shaller in December that Greene wants to set a standard that "to see your children you have to have a certain IQ, can't be disabled or have a certain sexual preference.
Even prisoners have the right to see their children," Meyer told Shaller. And "it is in the best interests of these children to have a relationship with their mother."
It took nearly a month to negotiate the details of the visit to Myrtle Beach, S.C., where Abbie lives with her parents. Four days, four hours a day, all expenses paid by Susan and Paul Cohen.
Psychologist Jane Ellen Shatz had spent months evaluating the children and their extended family, and in October she released her report. Shortly afterward, Greene called Meyer to talk. Their daylong, confidential mediation session resulted in the one-time visit, but the Cohens felt the conditions were onerous.
Susan could not talk to Esti, Reuvi and Yossi about whether their mother would ever get better. She could not ask the little girl and her brothers to pray for Abbie. No visitors were allowed while the children were there — not even their aunt, uncle and cousins. On the first day, the Cohens were not allowed in the room while the triplets and their mother got acquainted, although Abbie's caretakers were present.
But most of all, Susan said, no one could know — not the neighbors, not the media, not the judges.
On Dec. 6, Dan was scheduled to bring the children to the Cohens' airy house on the Intracoastal Waterway about 12:30 p.m. Abbie was ready, sitting up in a big brown chair in the living room, her makeup carefully applied, her skirt and top a neat black and white.
"I told her I don't know 100% for sure he's coming, that he may not show up," Susan recounted. "That's why, at 1:45, I sat down, put my feet up, took out a book and started to read to Abbie."
Then the doorbell rang.
At first, Susan said, the children were shy. They played with Band-Aids, their favorite toy, and medical gloves that the grownups had blown up into hand-shaped balloons. Esti, as always, talked the most. "We know our Mommy got sick," she told Susan on arrival, "because the doctor made a mistake."
Susan had set out an activity table with crayons and craft supplies, and the children drew pictures and made art projects. But when they brought them over to show their mother, Susan said, "Dan told them, 'She can't see.'"
Dan and attorney Greene declined to comment on why he agreed to the visit or how it went. They also would not discuss the ongoing litigation, including a suit that he has filed against the Cohens in South Carolina.
As part of Abbie's medical malpractice settlement, a $910,275 special needs trust fund had been set up. Dan argues in the new suit that Abbie's parents violated the terms of the trust by using most of that money to fight for visitation, and he wants them removed as conservators.
Meyer argues that the money is appropriately used for Abbie's medical and legal needs and that Dan simply wants to stop Abbie from fighting for visitation. The trust has dwindled fast, and the Cohens have set up a fund to accept donations to help Abbie see her children again.
And what did Abbie think about Esti, Reuvi and Yossi's visit?
A week after the children departed, she was back in the speech therapist's office, white board on lap. This time Gerace laid out just two words. "Sad" was on the right. "Happy" was on the left.
"How did you feel about seeing your children?" Gerace said.
Abbie looked to the left.