Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Teacher fights for right to see former special needs student

by Angie Ricono

Rita Richards is a special education teacher in the metro area. She’s taught hundreds of students, but some occupy a special place in her heart. Zach is one those. Submitted

LIBERTY, MO (KCTV) -- Rita Richards is a special education teacher in the metro area. For 22 years, she’s worked to help her students be the best they can be. She’s taught hundreds of students, but some occupy a special place in her heart.

Zach is one those. He was in Richard’s class for four years. He’s 26 years old now. He loves cheeseburgers, cool trucks, and always waves “hi” to police officers.

“Our relationship has changed just like other people's relationships through life change,” said Richards. “We started out with a teacher/student relationship, and then we became friends. Then it just kept evolving into where the more time we spent together, the more a part of our family that he became.”

When Zach’s mother couldn’t give him the care he needed, Zach became a ward of that state. That means the County Public Administrator became his guardian, in charge of taking care of his needs. It’s an elected position.

Richards and her family stepped up to provide support for Zach. It started with Zach visiting a couple of times of month. Richards would often get his former classmates together at her house. They had birthday parties for him and shared holidays together.

“He started seeing us as his family and we see him as a part of our family,” said Richards. “We love Zach.”

A few years ago, Rita says, things “started to go south.” Rita says things changed when a new public administer, Sarah Mills Rottgers took office in 2017.

Rita noticed some changes in Zach, he was losing weight and his personal hygiene was being neglected. She started visiting Zach in his group home more frequently. She found the house was lacking in certain foods. She found wet clothes on the floor.

“He had toothpaste, but no toothbrush,” said Richards.

She started documenting problems and asking questions. That’s when she says the Public Administrator pushed back. She invited Richards to a meeting with a lawyer.

“The attorney asked me rhetorical questions,” said Richards. “’Are you a doctor? Are you a dentist?’ I felt like that was trying to put me in my place.”

Then Rita showed up at Zach’s house one day, Zach was gone. He’d been moved. And Richards was banned. She didn’t understand why. The move stunned fellow teachers, her supervisor and the parents of other Richards’ students.

She wondered, “Why wouldn’t they want someone else looking out for their wards?” 

At that point, Richards dug in. She knew she had to fight to continue caring for Zach. She hired a lawyer to get her visitation rights restored. Richards says she never thought it would get to this--a lawyer and a fight that has consumer her.

It’s been a long battle—more than two years now. Finally, a court date was set for a bench trial in July, but then, that was delayed. In the meantime, Sarah Mills Rottgers submitted her resignation.

Last week, another court appearance. This time, to set a new bench trial date. Richards and the “Zach Pack” turned out in force. Carrying signs to bring awareness to their cause.

“Rita was just asking valid questions,” said Heather Tice, Richards’ former co-worker. “Questions family would be asking if they were in his life.”

“I think from Zach’s perspective, it’s pitiful,” said Sally Morgan Smith, another supporter and former supervisor. “Does he even know Rita and Ron are fighting so hard to see him?”

It’s likely he does not. But Richards says she’s committed—she’s “never going away.”

“I'm sure he misses us just as much as we miss him,” said Richards.

It’s important to remember that no one has broken any laws. Everything that has happened concerning Zach was perfectly legal. But the Zach Pack believes that it doesn’t make it right.

There is another court date set for October. Rita vows she’ll be there, the Zach Pack will be there, and we’ll be watching.

KCTV5 reached out to the public administrator by phone, through email and on social media. We never heard back.

What does an expert think?

KCTV5 connected with author and Senior Director for Law and Policy of the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University in New York. Jonathan Martinis was somewhat familiar with the case and said what’s happening Clay County is not surprising, but it is concerning.

Martinis says guardianships should not be dictatorships.

He says court appointed guardians and administrators have very little oversight and people with disabilities often have fewer rights than an axe murderer. Pointing out if Zach was in a prison, people could easily communicate and visit with him. Right now, that’s not the case.

“There's nothing wrong with a guardian saying you should not be hanging out with child molester or if we have evidence that a person is dangerous. The problems are when a guardian decides that you should not see someone you want to see and who wants to see you, who poses no threat to you, because the Guardian doesn't like the person,” said Martinis.

Martinis says people with disabilities should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness like all Americans. He points out the person being harmed in personality conflicts in generally the ward.

He says 40 years of science reveals people with disabilities lead fuller lives and are much happier when they can engage in supported decision-making.

“If a guardian takes away someone's friend on a whim, or because they just don't like that person. The Guardian becomes a dictator, then the guardianship becomes about the Guardian, and that's the exact opposite of what's supposed to happen,” said Martinis.

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