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Couple whose children were taken at birth by DCF under ‘predictive neglect’ theory will appeal dismissal of their discrimination claims

Hartford Courant - 1/28/2020

The Connecticut couple whose children were removed by the state at birth under the doctrine of “predictive neglect” will appeal the recent dismissal of claims that they were never given the chance to show they could be fit parents, resuming a 13-year court fight that has increasingly resonated with disability rights advocates.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut will represent Joseph Watley and Karin Hasemann as they challenge U.S. District Judge Robert N. Chatigny’s ruling. The judge said he would have had to undo years of state court actions in the Watley-Hasemann case to allow the couple to assert their rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act -- something the federal court lacks the jurisdiction to do.

The state courts, which terminated the couple’s parental rights in 2008, had ruled that the couple’s ADA claims belonged in federal court.

So what are parents embroiled in parental rights or neglect cases supposed to do? asks the ACLU’s Dan Barrett, adding that the case has taken on a significance far beyond the Connecticut couple.

“It’s bigger than them now,” said Barrett, the Connecticut branch’s legal director.

The Department of Children and Families went to the hospital and removed their two sons at birth in 2005 and 2006 under the controversial doctrine of predictive neglect.

The agency decided Hasemann, of Watertown, and Watley, of Thomaston, would not be able to take care of the children, based on mental health diagnoses made by court-appointed psychologists. Three years earlier, DCF had removed Hasemann’s newborn daughter for the same reasons. The children were adopted and are said to be doing well.

But DCF refused to make any accommodations to allow the couple to demonstrate that they could raise their children, Barrett said.

Predictive neglect -- the notion that it is more likely than not that the parents will abuse or neglect their children -- “can be a dangerous concept,” Barrett said. “DCF is saying they can’t be parents because of a disability, but they did nothing to help them.”

State DCF officials have said they did try to help the couple. The agency declined to comment on the appeal Monday.

The appeal was filed with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. Barrett said he’s hopeful the case will be returned for a thorough airing in the federal trial court in Connecticut.

In a ruling dated Dec. 23, Chatigny found that for the couple’s lawsuit to proceed, he would have to find fault with, and undo, a string of state court rulings that went against the couple. He said the federal district court lacks the power and jurisdiction to do that.

“I recognize the profoundly serious nature of the harm for which plaintiffs seek redress,” Chatigny wrote in the 69-page decision. “I also appreciate the role and responsibility of the federal district court in ensuring access to a federal trial proceeding for persons whose federal rights have been violated by state officials.

“Nevertheless, I conclude that the amended complaint must be dismissed."

The case began, Chatigny noted, when the hospital became alarmed at Hasemann’s reaction to the birth of her daughter in 2002.

“The hospital contacted DCF due to Ms. Hasemann’s response to Kristina’s birth,” the judge wrote, recounting previous court testimony. “She ‘insisted the girl was a boy, [that the baby had] had a heart attack, and [that she] should be fed in an unusual and inappropriate pattern even though the food intake for this premature baby was crucial.’ ”

That interaction played a role in DCF’s removal of Hasemann’s and Watley’s two sons in 2005 and 2006.

Citing previous court testimony, Chatigny said Hasemann “was found to have severe narcolepsy, schizotypal personality disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, chronic functional impairments, cognitive disorder not otherwise specified, cognitive deficits, antisocial personality disorder, and major depression. [She also] may suffer from the residual effects of a frontal lobe brain tumor removal that occurred when she was sixteen.

“Mr. Watley has been found to have ‘a personality disorder not otherwise specified,' " the judge noted.

Josh Kovner can be reached at


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