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Monday, September 10, 2007

Local Government is regulating relationships between select citizens.

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Blogger Bob said...

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She was ready to say 'I do.' County replied, 'You can't.'
Bethny Libsock fell in love and planned to marry. But the 36-year-old Monticello, Minn., woman has a mental disability, so Sherburne County went to court to stop her wedding.
RUBÉN ROSARIO

Article Last Updated: 09/08/2007 08:07:02 PM CDT


Bethny Libsock dotes on her cat, Sam, in her Monticello, Minn., apartment while talking with her mother, Betty Libsock. Bethny Libsock, 36, has worked for eight years at Cub Foods, maintains a circle of friends and has an active life that includes church and sports. (JEAN PIERI, Pioneer Press)Say hello to Bethny Libsock. She is 36 years old, lives alone, works and has a virtually spotless driving record.

Like most of us, she has the right to vote, drink and freely associate with whomever. But when Libsock, who has a mild mental disability, informed her social worker and a service provider that she had fallen in love and planned to marry, Sherburne County officials assumed the role of the strongly disapproving parent.

It moved in court to block the marriage as well as have a judge review the fitness of Libsock's legal guardian, who is her mother and a former county foster parent. It also raised the possibility that both the mother and groom-to-be could face criminal charges if the marriage took place.

The county's decision to meddle into this affair of the heart touched off an intriguing, nearly yearlong court battle that pitted the civil and human rights of a mentally disabled person against the government's stated interest in protecting a vulnerable adult - one with the estimated mental capabilities of a 12-year-old - from perceived or potential harm.

In the end, does Bethny Libsock have the inherent right to marry, regardless of her disability or whether the suitor turns out to be Mr. Right or a creep? And does the government have any authority to stop it from taking place? Alas, the case's somewhat anti-climactic ending never really provided answers.

"The truth of the matter is that in this area, there aren't a lot of black or white answers,'' said Barnett Rosenfield, a lawyer for the Minnesota Disability Law Center.

Still, the county, which has provided and funded limited services for Libsock for nearly 18 years, has taken a lambasting from people ranging from Libsock's parents and circle of friends to a state watchdog group that monitored the case.

"When a person with a disability asks government for help with an aspect of their life, they do not expect government to take over all aspects of their life,'' said Roberta Opheim, the state's ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. "When parties disagree and government brings all of its resources to bear against the individual, it risks becoming the abuser.

"Having the government tell a person with a developmental disability that they can only date or marry another developmentally disabled person appears to me to be abusive."

Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney strongly disagrees and defends her office's decision.

"The issue that we were faced with was not whether a person should marry, but the statutory issue of whether an individual had the capacity to marry,'' Heaney wrote in a prepared statement. "(Bethny) had been appointed a guardian/conservator because she 'lacked sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible personal decisions.' The professionals brought this issue forward. After an analysis based upon the facts and the law, my duty is to inform the court.''

Lawyers on both sides agree on one thing: They've never seen a case quite like it before.

THE RELATIONSHIP

This detoured march to court instead of the altar began last summer after Libsock's social worker of six years, Pat Kuehn, got wind of Libsock's relationship with a 55-year-old, thrice-divorced former Green Beret she met while visiting her parents in 2005 at their retirement home in Arizona. At the time, Bethny Libsock received about five hours daily of supported living services. Judged to have an IQ of 67, Libsock has difficulty reading and handling finances.

"Beth had had friends before, but she really took to him, and he was gracious, gentle and very kind with her,'' said Betty Libsock, Bethny's mother. "I had never seen Beth so happy, with such joy.''

The relationship continued by phone after Bethny Libsock returned to Minnesota. Her parents had several "deep'' conversations with the man about his intent toward their daughter.

"Like most parents you have doubts, and this was not the man that I would have chosen because he was 20 years older and divorced,'' said Betty Libsock, who also operated a treatment group home and a crisis nursery. "But I told her to follow her heart and not rush into anything. She said that she won't marry unless he's a Christian and puts the Lord first.''

THE OFFICIAL OBJECTIONS

Where the Libsocks saw love and happiness, Kuehn and others saw red flags.

Kuehn, who now works for Ramsey County's human services division, expressed concerns about the man's past marriages and his age, and that he was a normal, functioning male, according to court documents. She shared those concerns with Dr. Jean Rafferty, Bethny Libsock's therapist, and Tracy Harris, an assistant Sherburne County prosecutor.

A meeting was held Aug. 15, 2006, at Rafferty's office in Monticello, where Libsock has lived for several years.

"We walk in there and the first thing they tell us is that the relationship has to be terminated immediately - no 'hello,' no 'how are you,' '' recalled Bethny's father, Bob Libsock. "We were stunned.''

Rafferty, according to court papers, told the Libsocks that "she has worked with sexual offenders in the past and reviewed with them the possibility that (Bethny's fiance) may be 'grooming' them and Beth, using religion as a tool.''

During the meeting, Kuehn handed Bethny Libsock two sheets of paper. One of them contained the statute on criminal neglect involving "a caregiver or operator who intentionally neglects a vulnerable adult or knowingly permits conditions to exist that result in the abuse or neglect of a vulnerable adult.''

The other centered on third-degree criminal sexual conduct involving an offender who knowingly has sexual intercourse with someone who is "mentally impaired, mentally incapacitated, or physically helpless.''

"It was like she hit me with a 2-by-4,'' said Betty Libsock. The court battle began in earnest after the Libsocks refused to voluntarily halt the marriage plans.

"All are concerned for Beth's safety and risk of harm,'' Kuehn wrote in a letter to the court suggesting it stop the "romantic relationship'' and perhaps replace Betty Libsock as her daughter's guardian.

THE COURT DEBATE

In court, the county argued that Bethny Libsock was at risk of harm and basically lacked the mental capacity to enter into marriage. It produced, among other documents, a 1997 evaluation concluding that Libsock functioned "at the level of a 5-year-old in the area of communication, at the level of a 14-year-old in the area of daily living skills, and at the level of a 10-year-old in the area of socialization.''

Lawyers for Libsock and her parents presented a radically different picture. It was the profile of a middle-aged woman who has been living independently for more than a decade, has worked eight consecutive years at the Cub Foods store in Monticello, maintains a circle of friends and enjoys an active life that includes church, sports and taking an elderly neighbor grocery shopping.

She and her fiance also underwent pastoral and marriage counseling several times before and after the court proceedings began. A therapist found that Libsock, contrary to county assertions, "has a basic understanding of marriage and sexuality and ... functions above her cognitive ability level in many areas in her life.''

The Minnesota Disability Law Center also chimed in.

"In this case, it appears as though the guardian has been particularly conscientious in balancing the need to protect Ms. Libsock from any reasonable threat of harm with the concomitant need to assure Ms. Libsock's basic right to make choices of her own free will - including the choice of whom to date,'' the group wrote to Sherburne County District Judge Robert Varco.

Perhaps the surprise here was that the social workers and county officials never called, questioned, investigated or apparently conducted a criminal background check on Libsock's fiance. Her parents said they did on their own and found nothing.

The case took a significant turn earlier this year when the Libsocks pulled the plug on county services for their daughter. The county argued it still had standing, but Varco ruled otherwise in late June after sitting down with Bethny and others to make sure the termination of services would not adversely harm her.

"He found her to be coherent and quite articulate in her wishes,'' recalled her lawyer, Thomas Richards. "She presented herself very well.''

THE RIGHT TO DECIDE

The county was out of the picture, but in the end, they indirectly got their wish.

Libsock's engagement fizzled by mutual agreement shortly before the case was dismissed. Libsock and her parents believe the legal wrangling played a role in the eventual break-up.

Libsock says she plans to personally return the engagement ring to her former fiance when she visits her parents in Arizona during the coming holiday season.

"He was very kind,'' Libsock told me last week. "He left a message on my machine saying that he was sorry that it all happened.''

Her parents, meanwhile, spent more than $10,000 on legal fees and also were forced to remain in Minnesota for eight months because of the court proceedings.

"Our daughter has been a great joy to us in our lives and we are very proud of her high moral living standards and her accomplishments,'' Betty Libsock wrote to the judge. "We refuse to allow the negativity of this court action to diminish Beth's achievements or future happiness.''

The wedding was supposed to take place Sept. 1. Because of it, Libsock gave up her position as an alternate member of a national Special Olympics basketball team that recently traveled to China.

I'm no expert on these matters, but it seems to me that, given that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce, perhaps there's an argument to be made that many of us also lack the mental capacity to truly understand commitment.

Libsock's Special Olympics coach, Darlene Nichols, perhaps best summed up the bottom line in this case.

"It is my opinion that, whenever possible, it is best to leave decisions related to the well-being of an individual up to the family rather than to a government agency,'' Nichols wrote in a letter to the judge. "Beth deserves all the happiness she can possibly have. If that includes falling in love and being loved, who has the right to decide that for her?"

Rubén Rosario can be reached at rrosario@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5454.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Hi All,

I know a Saint Paul man who married a mentally handicap woman.

He is a very successful and well respected businessman in Saint Paul. He cares for and loves his wife. They have children who are grown now and not living at home anymore.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this article yesterday also and felt it was very sad the way this relationship was interupted by Sherburne Co. and most likely was the result of this relationship ending.

It was a very touching story, I thought people had a right to decide who they want to spend their life with, to be happy and have privacy... It would of been different if this individual in her life had a history of criminal activity that including taking advantage of vulnerable adults but that doesn't appear to be the situation.

Nancy O.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These government agencies think they own you once they get you into the system. I think this woman should sue the county for intentional emotional duress, among other things.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People have lost their minds.

Bob, have you emailed Sherburne County yet?

1:09 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Crazy Republicans.

Eric M.

2:51 PM  

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