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Lauren Richardson saved

For once, some good news: Some of you may have been following the case of Lauren Richardson, who was in great danger of being dehydrated to death in Delaware after a court order awarding custody to her mother, who said she intended to have Lauren's feeding tube removed. Via Secondhand Smoke comes the news that Lauren's mother has had a change of heart and that she and Lauren's father (who are divorced) have agreed on a custody arrangement in which Lauren will live at her father's house and continue to receive food, water, and care.

Many have been struck by the similarities between this case and that of Terri Schiavo. I had noticed the very strong resemblance between the legal situations and had therefore feared that there was no hope for Lauren. The judge in Lauren's case concluded that there was "clear and convincing evidence" that Lauren would have wanted her feeding and hydration stopped, and on that basis he awarded custody to Lauren's mother, precisely because that was her intention. I am pleasantly surprised and relieved to find that Lauren's mother has even been permitted by the courts to have a change of heart. It seems they might easily have decided instead, given the mother's new agreement with the father about Lauren's care, to give custody to an entirely different party who would carry out the dehydration.

In fact, that was precisely what the Court of Appeals in Florida implied would have happened in Terri's case if (per impossible) Michael Schiavo had changed his mind. The legal fiction was that the decision was being made by Terri herself and that hence no one else had a right to decide otherwise once the court had ostensibly determined her wishes. (See here, p. 10.)

Lauren's case is taking place in a different state. But it seems to me that the crucial difference in the legal situation is simply that the trial judge in Lauren's case made his decision as a matter of granting custody rather than issuing a direct court order (as ultimately Judge Greer did in Terri's case) that Lauren be dehydrated. True, Lauren's mother's initial intention to have her hydration removed was the rationale for the judge's decision, but what he actually ordered was only that the mother be granted custody. This left open at least the possibility that the supposed determination of Lauren's wishes could later be quietly dropped out of the equation if the parents could come to an agreement between themselves regarding her care. And thank God they did.

One more point: Legally, Mr. Richardson's appeal on Lauren's behalf looked hopeless. But it was the fact of the appeal itself that kept Lauren alive during the months during which her mother was thinking and rethinking. Mr. Richardson put up a web site on Lauren's behalf which asked, among other things, what we would tell Lauren's little daughter, Amber. Lauren's mother, Amber's grandmother, expressly cites this as one of the causes of her new decision. None of that would have been possible if it had not been for the legal delay. So the moral of the story is, as Mr. Smith says in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for. And sometimes, the good guys even win.

Comments (3)


Maybe this had something to do with it: Towers said she originally felt bound by her promise to her daughter but she had doubts that grew as time went on. "I prayed for answers every day."

I have trouble seeing Michael Schiavo in that same posture.

Thanks Lydia! And thanks to all those who prayed for the people involved in this case--they, along with Lauren's family, obviously made the difference here.

One point of clarification: the procedural posture in this case was kind of weird. The initial trial and "ruling" was made by someone called a "master." I don't know how best to describe his status in layman's terms, except to say, meaning absolutely no disrespect, that a master is kind of a deputy judge. He doesn't have the power to rule on the case like a judge does. He only (as relevant here) has the power to hear evidence make a recommendation to the judge on how to actually rule. Lots of courts use a system like this and usually the idea is that it saves judges time.

In any event, "the court ruled" isn't technically true--not to fault you, of course, because it's what the media reported (and not really to fault them, because this is kind of confusing). The master (merely) recommended a ruling, but Lauren's father lodged an objection with the judge-judge and asked for basically a new trial and more evidence. The judge (called a Chancellor in this court) never adopted the Master's recommendation--it took some months to brief the issues and deal with whether and what new evidence to submit--and before anything could happen Lauren's mother had a change of heart. Then, in the settlement order, the Chancellor vacated the recommendation. That wiped the slate clean.

Bottom line--the "court" never actually found that Lauren wanted to refuse food and water, and on the contrary, it vacated even the contested recommendation. So in that sense, and in other senses, the status wasn't yet as bad as when Terri's case was on appeal. FWIW.

Matt, I appreciate the clarification very much. I had seen the word 'Master' applied to the person making the ruling, but my best guess was that it was rather like the fact that one state has a state Congress that is called a "House of Burgesses" or something like that--just a different name for the same thing. Then the stories used the term 'appealed' for what Lauren's father had done, which I took to mean that he was taking it to a higher-level court. AS you know, in Terri's case, the problem there is that the higher-level courts do not reverse the trial court's findings of fact. They work only on matters of procedure. So Terri's parents could never get a fresh trial on matters of fact in her case. Obviously, the term 'appeal' was confusing in Lauren's case. And that also explains the sense of legal limbo one got in Lauren's case during these past months, which I had been a bit curious about. Thanks again!

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