The wishes of individuals declared mentally incompetent often go unheeded in family court, lawyers and social workers say, costing them control over the most personal decisions.
In light of this month’s stunning family court ruling that a woman diagnosed with schizophrenia should undergo an abortion and be sterilized, mental health specialists say the case, while an extreme example, casts light on an often unsettling reality for those deemed unable to make decisions for themselves.
Even when individuals voice opposition to a course of treatment, from antipsychotic medication to hospitalization, the courts often rule otherwise, lawyers say.
“It happens regularly,’’ said Robert Fleischner, an attorney at the Center for Public Representation in Northampton who specializes in mental health and disability law.
Those who work in the family court system generally praise Massachusetts for its progressive attitudes toward incapacitated individuals, saying their voices typically are allowed greater force here than in other states.
Yet many worry that the recent ruling, which only came to light when it was reversed on appeal, suggests there could be broader a problem at play, and it prompted concern that the courts are not consistently honoring the rights of those declared incompetent.
“To think a ruling like this could even happen once is extremely disturbing," said Rick Glassman, litigation director of the Disability Law Center of Massachusetts. No figures are kept on the number of court-ordered abortions and sterilizations in Massachusetts, but specialists say they are likely more common than typically assumed.
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Disabled Patients' Wishes Ignored