DETROIT, Mich. — A Detroit man is finally free tonight after spending more than 2½ years under guardianship because a judge declared him legally incapacitated. Rodrick Gordon is Deaf-Blind but that doesn’t mean he needs to have a guardian in charge of every decision in his life.
“I’ve been living independently for 30 years,” said Gordon.
The 69-year-old may be Deaf-Blind, but all you have to do is spend five minutes with him to know he is not mentally incapacitated.
“Do you consider yourself incapacitated,” asked 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.
“No! Absolutely not,” said Gordon.
In his 20s and 30s, Gordon became Deaf-Blind after complications from a brain tumor. But after training at the Helen Keller Center for the Deaf-Blind, he learned to use Tactile American Sign Language to communicate. Here’s the problem: no one properly communicated with him when his civil rights were on the line back in 2018.
That’s when Gordon was assaulted outside his Detroit apartment. His lawyer says after he was released from the hospital he no longer had the same in-home services that had previously helped him live independently.
So an Adult Protective Services worker filed a petition with the Wayne County Probate Court to place Rodrick under guardianship.
“Do you need a guardian,” asked Catallo.
“No! That is saying that I do not have the capability to do the things that I’ve been trained to do and take care of my own personal life,” said Gordon. “I was utterly surprised that I’d been taken into a home and been deprived of my independence … So I was deprived of my independent living and the court denied me of being back independently on my own again.”
Before you’re placed under guardianship, a judge appoints someone called a Guardian ad Litem to visit with you and explain your rights under the law. The Guardian ad Litem is often a lawyer, but they’re not your lawyer. And they’re not a doctor. They are there to report back to the judge about whether they believe you need a guardian, and whether they believe you are mentally incapacitated.
In Rodrick Gordon’s case, his Guardian ad Litem did not have a Deaf-Blind interpreter with him, and said in his report to the judge: “The ward was not responsive when discussing guardianship and could not hear… the nature and purpose of having a guardian.” Yet he still recommended to the judge that Gordon be placed under guardianship.
“It’s really tragic,” said Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Charlene Gordon (no relation). She has worked with Rodrick Gordon for years.
“What do you think about the failure to make sure he had the proper interpreters at the initial stages of this case,” asked Catallo.
“It was a power move. That was a move by the professionals to say we don’t want you to know what’s going on. We want to take control of this.”
She’s appalled that Gordon was placed under guardianship and then moved to a group home against his will.
“They said, oh he’s Deaf-Blind, we don’t know how to help him coordinate services. So therefore they put him up under guardianship,” said Charlene Gordon.
So Rodrick appealed the guardianship.
“Because if these things can be done, it can happen to other people too,” said Gordon.
Michigan Elder Justice Initiative attorney Nicole Shannon argued Rodrick Gordon’s case in front of the Michigan Court of Appeals and won. That set an important precedent.
“It serves as case law for every guardianship case going forward across the state of Michigan. It’s not just a suggestion: because it is published, this is binding law in the same way that a statute would be” said Shannon. “It reminds courts they do have to apply the correct standard in these cases. It means that if you’re subject to a guardianship like Mr. Gordon is, it’s not his job to show he’s not incapacitated – it’s somebody else’s job to show that he is incapacitated … He’s a brilliant man who is absolutely in control of his life and should have never been in this situation in the first place.”
Shannon says a key issue on appeal was how the Wayne County Probate Court relied on a note from an internal medicine doctor for the group home, even though the doctor also did not use an interpreter to properly communicate with Rodrick.
Shannon is on Michigan’s Elder Abuse Task Force and says too often the courts rely on inadequate medical notes to declare people incapacitated. That will change under new legislation just introduced in the Michigan House and Senate to improve the information from medical and psychological professionals in guardianship cases.
“Under the proposed legislation we’re going to require that its [notes/records] type written, to ensure that we know who wrote it, so we can talk to that doctor, potentially have them come testify and gather more information along the way,” said Shannon.
The new legislation also improves the rules that Guardians Ad Litem have to follow.
“It would focus on ensuring that Guardians ad Litem are giving the courts all the information that they really need, and ensuring that the individuals rights are preserved,” said Shannon. “That’s going to mean explaining how long they met with the person, because it’s going to be important to know whether they talked with somebody for 5 minutes or for an hour.”
After 2 ½ years, the probate judge terminated Rodrick Gordon’s guardianship in May. Now he wants others to know the laws must change.
“I do want to see others who are capable and want to continue their lives given appropriate access and given the correct chance of living independently. And not just be picked up and dumped into homes where they are not supposed to be,” said Gordon.
A spokesman for Adult Protective Services said they legally can’t discuss the specifics of this case.
But in a statement, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees APS) Director Elizabeth Hertel said:
“It is important to the department that we ensure everyone we interact with is treated with dignity and respect. That includes ensuring that the people we serve are able to communicate with us properly and accurately.”
Vision Rehabilitation Therapist Charlene Gordon thanked the Greater Detroit Area Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired, PsyGenics Inc., and Deaf C.A.N. for all of their support for Rodrick Gordon throughout his legal battle and guardianship.
Now that Rodrick Gordon has his freedom back, he plans to keep attending his beloved church, and says, “I will continue to live the life that God wants me to do, to go out and give thanks and praise with my other brothers and sisters.”
If you have a story for Heather, please email her at email@example.com