For 18 years, Dora Sanchez Hernandez has fiercely protected her son.
From the time Erik Esequizel was born prematurely at just 24 weeks, she has been there for him. Through 50 surgeries and two near-death episodes. Through the daily demands of feeding, bathing and dressing. Through abandonment by his father and advice from doctors to pull the plug.
Now — in what L.A. County Superior Court Judge Michael I. Levanas called a "celebration of family" — Hernandez and 14 other families have been granted limited conservatorships over their disabled children. It allows them to make medical, educational, business and other decisions for their children even after they turn 18.
"Erik is my disabled son, and he means the world to me," Hernandez said. "Now there is no stopping me to advocate for him."
The courtroom session last week marked a unique collaboration among the L.A. County Superior Court, the Los Angeles Unified School District, private attorneys and Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a nonprofit that assists the poor. To make what can be an intimidating process efficient and comfortable, the parties come together four times a year to act on the conservatorship cases in one courtroom over one afternoon.
The Family Matters project was launched in 2010. Bet Tzedek, the only legal aid agency in Los Angeles County that handles conservatorship cases for free, had been helping low-income families and their disabled children for years. But Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, presiding judge of the probate department, suggested giving the families special hearing dates in the same courtroom to lesson their anxiety and discomfort. L.A. Unified provides campus space for the project's education and training sessions on the conservatorship process.
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Judge Calls Conservatorship a "Celebration of Family"