|Ryan Morris & Grandmother|
Identical twins start as a single embryo that collapses in on itself, creating two balls of cells where once there was one. They grow into two genetically identical human beings.
Twenty-three years later, Ryan and Ronald could scarcely be more different.
Consigned to separate childhoods by the state of California shortly after their birth, their disparate lives stand in stark contrast to their identical genes.
Ronald drives a pickup, works as a client-relations and facility manager for an imaging company and practices mixed martial arts. He enjoys making art in different mediums and says family is No. 1.
Ryan suffers from a long list of maladies requiring powerful medications. He has the intellectual capacity of a kindergartener. He can’t make his own medical decisions and requires a legal guardian to protect him.
Ryan also is married to that guardian, Sean Spicer. He is a truck driver 18 years Ryan’s senior.
Despite their differences, one piece of twin lore seems to hold true for Ryan and Ronald. After long separations, reunited twins often report a profound and intense intimacy that one researcher described as being as close to “the coordinated, harmonious relations for which we all strive” as two human beings are likely to get.
When Ryan and Ronald finally saw one another at a Temecula courthouse after more than a dozen years apart, they threw their arms around one another in a powerful embrace captured in family photos and video. Onlookers wept as the twins clung to one another, rocking slowly from side to side. In court, Ryan refused to let go of Ronald’s hand.
“All I know, and have ever known, is that I love my identical twin brother and want so much to see him,” Ronald would later argue in a petition to Riverside Superior Court, seeking to be appointed one of Ryan’s legal guardians.
“I want to hug him, talk to him, play with him, and let him know that he matters to me and the rest of the family. I want a stable relationship with my twin brother, and to be involved and active in his life, as a brother and friend.”
It’s a battle Ronald and his biological family have been waging for nearly two decades – one that has made headlines in years past and is scheduled for a hearing this week that could force a pivotal legal decision in a case that raises uncomfortable questions.
Those questions go beyond whether identical twins should be raised together or apart, or even how much power the state can wield over families.
Can a man with cognitive disabilities so serious that he can’t think abstractly, manage money or care for himself, give informed consent to a marriage and intimate relationship?
And does the equation change if that disabled person marries someone of normal intelligence, who then becomes his court-appointed caretaker, empowered to make the most fundamental life decisions?
Disability-rights advocates approached such questions cautiously. Relationships between the cognitively disabled and those of regular intelligence are rare, but activists have fought to secure the rights of disabled people to marry and fully express their sexuality. The goal has been to give individuals more freedom, not less.
“People with developmental disabilities – particularly intellectual disabilities – have been marginalized,” said Katie Hornberger, director of Clients’ Rights Advocacy for the nonprofit Disability Rights California. “People treat them as giant children. If they have the intellectual capacity of a 5-year-old, well, that’s how they scored on a test.
“But there’s a lot of knowledge that comes from existing in this world,” Hornberger said. “I need help to ride a city bus, but my clients with intellectual disabilities do that every day of their lives. Who’s smarter?
“The right to control marriage and sexual contact are just such fundamental human rights,” she added. “They should not be proscribed.”
Robert D. Dinerstein, director of the Disability Rights Law Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., said a person under a full conservatorship can consent to a marriage or a sexual relationship, but court tests might be necessary.
The decision is contextual and requires examining a number of factors, including whether the person has “a sufficient understanding, perhaps with the support of others, of the relationship he or she is about to enter,” Dinerstein said. Also important is determining whether he or she can weigh the pros and cons of the choice involved, and “somewhat more controversially whether he or she can appreciate the nature of the decision (and its broader implications).”
And, of course, one would want to make sure that no one was coercing the person to engage in the relationship against the person’s will, Dinerstein said.
Something in the balance of power between Ryan and his husband profoundly disturbs his twin brother, sister, aunts and grandmother. They have “grave concerns,” voiced in court filings, that Ryan’s husband “may be sexually abusing and controlling” him, causing irreparable harm.
Spicer, Ryan’s husband and legal conservator, said that’s untrue. He’s doing his best to take good care of Ryan, he told the court, and Ryan wants him to remain as conservator. “Does he get a say in this matter?” the husband asked.
Indeed, Ryan does have a say, a Riverside County judge said. But the judge ordered the Public Guardian’s office to investigate the situation nonetheless, and explain why a neutral party, such as the Public Guardian’s office itself, shouldn’t step in as Ryan’s guardian.
The unusual case has complex legal and emotional crosscurrents, and those officially charged with assessing Ryan’s well-being have come to opposite conclusions.
The publicly funded attorney appointed to represent Ryan says Ryan is happy living with his husband, and favors the status quo. Under no circumstances does Ryan want his family members as conservators, because he believes they are trying to break up his marriage and are engaged in “heavy-handed harassment against his chosen life partner,” Ryan’s attorney argued in court documents.
The state investigator who recently conducted the judge’s court-ordered review questioned Ryan’s comprehension of his wedding, and gave a positive review to Ryan’s biological family, concluding it could offer “a genuinely viable alternative” to naming the state as Ryan’s legal guardian.
Indeed, every person and every agency that has ever had influence over Ryan’s life – government social workers, the court system, his biological family, the foster mother who adopted him and now Ryan’s husband – insist that they only want what’s best for Ryan, and are striving to give him the freedom he deserves.
But they have very different ideas about what that means.
Ronald and Ryan were born three months early at Huntington Beach Hospital, as tiny and frail as baby birds. Ronald, the healthy twin, came late in the evening on Jan. 9, 1994; Ryan followed 2½ hours later, after midnight on Jan. 10.
The infants were swept immediately into county custody. Their mother had a history of mental illness and had not received prenatal care, according to a social worker’s report at the time. Grandmother Tamara Mukai Mazzei said she sat vigil most every night for six months as the babies struggled in intensive care, heading to work at a San Clemente beauty salon the next day, bleary-eyed. Mukai Mazzei had been in similar circumstances before: She was raising her troubled daughter’s two older children, and intended to take the boys as soon as they were strong enough to come home.
Mukai Mazzei, an intense Italian immigrant with startling green eyes and shimmering red hair, thought it was only logical that the twins grow up with their big sisters, Jamie and Krystal, and all the aunts and uncles and cousins in their big, extended family.
When the twins were about 16 months old, Mukai Mazzei got half her wish. Ronald was healthy enough to come home. Ryan wasn’t.
Ryan had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, asthma and other maladies, according to court records.
His motor skills and speech were impaired. He was prone to seizures. He required care 24/7, much more specialized care than Mukai Mazzei could give, officials told her. Mukai Mazzei told social workers that she’d be happy to learn whatever skills were necessary. But Ryan was placed in one specialized foster home after another for the first few years of his life – care that cost the county some $5,000 per month. At the time, the state would only provide such financial support to foster care and institutional programs, not to families of patients.
Mukai Mazzei, Ronald and the sisters visited Ryan weekly and often took him home for overnight visits. Ronald’s bedroom was yellow, brimming with books and toys, and optimistically furnished with two beds – one for each twin. “We used to play, go to the beach, sing songs and watch the trains pass in San Clemente,” sister Jamie Moore said in court documents. “I always remembered how Ryan loved the train … he would smile, point and say, ‘CHOO CHOO!’”
The bond between the brothers was obvious, Jamie said. “Sometimes they would just go on and on, mimicking each other and laughing, that they forgot anyone else was even there.”
Family members never gave up hope they’d bring Ryan home for good. Then, as the twins approached their fourth birthday, Ryan was transferred to a foster home in the Tustin foothills that catered to severely disabled children. Most could not walk or speak. Mukai Mazzei worried Ryan would become isolated and lonely, living with children so much more disabled than he.
“Who will he play with?” Mukai Mazzei wondered.
‘IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE’
The Tustin foster home was run by Michelle Morris, who’d worked in the past for Los Angeles County as an adoption social worker. She’d also written “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” a disturbing 1982 novel about father-daughter incest. It was based on a friend’s experience, she said, and she hoped to raise awareness about sexual abuse.
The book evolved into an off-Broadway play, and Morris became a regular at benefits for abused children, she told the Register more than a decade ago. At a Costa Mesa home for medically fragile children, she met a lanky 7-year-old with cerebral palsy who stole her heart. Learning to love the child taught Morris a great deal: “If you’re a religious person … you feel closer to God,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “These children call out the best in us.”
Morris declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a 2004 interview with the Register, she said that as disabled children in foster care grow up, they’re often moved to different homes. “You need a home all your life, not just when you’re little and cute,” she said.
Morris and her husband, Larry Kerin, formed the Lifeplan Children’s Services nonprofit in the 1990s and opened the Michelle Morris Family Home for disabled children. She was licensed by the state to care for six severely disabled children. The beds filled up quickly.
“Clean, good condition,” concluded the first annual review conducted by the Orange County Regional Center, a quasi-governmental organization that contracts with the state to provide services for the disabled. “Pass with flying colors. Additional staff are on board to provide services above and beyond the call of duty. Good job!”
Some parents who placed disabled children in Morris and Kerin’s home praised the couple as a godsend, saying they finally had peace of mind that their children were being well cared-for.
But there were complaints, too, ranging from neglect and lack of supervision to improper record-keeping, according to state records. In 1997 – the year that Ryan arrived – state investigators said Morris’ husband left a 9-year-old, nonverbal child at a Social Services office in frustration after the state failed to pay for the child’s care for two consecutive months. Kerin apologized, according to state records, but regulators declared his presence “a threat to the health and safety” of the children.
He was forbidden to enter Morris’ foster home. No charges were filed, and he was later granted permission to return.
Ryan’s grandmother and Morris quickly clashed. Mukai Mazzei feared Ryan wasn’t getting enough positive role models in a home with such severely disabled children. She felt Morris was motivated by the $5,000 a month she received for his care, and that Morris overstated Ryan’s problems to get more money, according to court documents filed in 2000 by Mukai Mazzei as part of the custody fight over Ryan.
Morris argued that Mukai Mazzei was in denial about Ryan’s disabilities and didn’t supervise him adequately when he spent nights at Mukai Mazzei’s house. Morris also alleged that Mukai Mazzei didn’t follow Ryan’s medical regimen correctly and that he would return to Morris’ foster home with scrapes and bruises. Visits with his siblings overstimulated him and made him prone to dangerous seizures, Morris said in court documents.
Mukai Mazzei said that scrapes and bruises happen when children are finally free to run and play, but officials concluded that she was in denial about the severity of Ryan’s disabilities. The biological family’s visits with Ryan were curtailed. When Ryan was 5, Morris declared her intention to adopt him, prompting an all-out war over the little boy with the wire-rim glasses.
“There are so many children out there that need a loving home, why are you going to steal a child from a family that wants him, especially a twin?” asked the twins’ aunt, Monica Mukai.
Generally, the law awards custody to family members, but not when a child has been in long-term foster care. Then, the burden is on the biological family to prove that the foster placement – the stable thing in his life – is harmful.
In Juvenile Court, county social workers again sided with Morris. Grandmother Mukai didn’t have an adequate understanding of Ryan’s special needs and couldn’t provide the level of one-on-one, 24-hour supervision that Morris could, a social worker’s report said. Ryan also had forged a strong bond with Morris and made great developmental strides in her care, Morris’ attorney argued – progress that would be jeopardized if Ryan went to his biological family.
“They said I did it for the money,” Morris told the Register at the time. “That’s a joke. I did it because we love him.”
The adoption was finalized in 2002. Ryan’s biological family had visitation rights as long as it was in Ryan’s best interest.
Morris concluded it wasn’t, claiming Ryan’s biological relatives were trying to turn him against his adoptive family. Communication ceased.
“I was not even allowed to say goodbye,” Mukai Mazzei said. “To him, Grandma just disappeared.”
The twins were 8 that first Christmas after the adoption, when Ronald wrote a letter to Ryan that was turned away by Morris, according to the grandmother. Two smiling stick figures stood tall on a hill.
“I miss you,” the letter said. “I would like to see you again. I love you. We are brothers forever and ever.”
Ronald did not see Ryan again until 2015, after their 22nd birthday. Ronald would be surprised to learn he had a brother-in-law.
Full Article & Source:
Part 1: Twins, divided: Is one man happily married or a victim of sexual abuse?