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Disabled woman who won court battle with mother moves in with friends

By Noreen O'Donnell

(Reuters) - A 29-year-old Virginia woman with Down syndrome who successfully fought her mother's attempt to be her guardian has moved in with friends, according to one of the people she now lives with.

In a case watched carefully by advocates for people with disabilities, Margaret Jean Hatch, who is known as Jenny, had been fighting for nearly a year to be able to choose where to live. She succeeded on Friday.

Newport News, Virginia, Circuit Judge David Pugh decided that although Hatch was not capable of independence and needed a legal guardian, he had to consider the disabled woman's wishes in picking that guardian. He chose her friends, Jim Talbert and Kelly Morris of Hampton, Virginia, for the next year, during which they are to help her gain more independence.

Hatch's mother and stepfather, Julia and Richard Ross, had filed for guardianship. They had wanted her to remain in a group home, which they believed offered the safest environment, the Washington Post reported, citing court records. They asked for the right to decide where she lived, what medical treatment she received and whom she could see.

"We were ecstatic," Talbert said on Saturday of the judge's decision. "We were happy. We were crying. It was an unbelievable victory for Jenny."

Hatch persuaded Talbert and Morris to gather her belongings at the group home immediately rather than wait, Talbert said. She spent Saturday swimming and bowling, he said.

"It's more than just where she wants to live," he said. "I think that Jenny's goal is not to have a guardian and have the right to choose how she directed her life. And obviously you can't do that if you're in a guardianship."

Hatch, who was represented by Jonathan Martinis, the legal director for Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., had worked at a thrift store that Talbert and Morris own. She lived with them in the spring after she was in a bicycle accident.

She wants to return to work at the thrift store, possibly later next week, Talbert said.

"We're not her mother, we're not her father, but she's like one of our family.

If in the future, she wants to move into an apartment, they will try to help her achieve that goal, he said.

Advocates hailed the judge's ruling.

"This decision is a big step in the right direction," Susan Mizner, disability counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "Like most people with developmental disabilities - and just like all of us - Jenny will learn, grow, and live best when she has the freedom and responsibility to make her own decisions."

Efforts to contact her mother or her lawyer for comment were not successful.

(Reporting By Noreen O'Donnell; Editing by Greg McCune and Eric Walsh)

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