Whose Best Interest?
April 28th, 2010

Who is the best person to raise your children?  You, right?  And what if something happens to you?  Your spouse, right?  Most people can answer these questions without hesitation.  Our involvement in the lives of our children is instinctual and our inalienable right, right?  But those questions have become murky ones for Abbie Dorn, her ex-husband, and her parents/caretakers.

In a tragic and Terri Schiavo-esque case, legal teams for both sides are trying to answer that very question.  It is one of those cases that have no right decision and no happy ending. 

In 2002 Abbie Cohen and Daniel Dorn whipped their way through a whirlwind romance and were married after six months.  After becoming pregnant with triplets via IVF in the fall of 2005 Abbie delivered their babies via C-section in the summer of 2006.  The first two babies were delivered without incident.  But while delivering the third the OB nicked Abbie’s uterine wall with a scalpel causing Abbie to bleed severely and go into cardiac arrest.  She was revived after 20 minutes, but the duration of time that her brain went without oxygen left her severely brain damaged. 

On the triplets’ first birthday Daniel Dorn submitted divorce papers to his wife (now in her parents’ care, funded by the proceeds of a malpractice lawsuit).  The divorce was granted, but now the question on the table is whether or not Abbie should be granted visitation rights with her children. 

There are conflicting reports regarding Abbie’s mental capacity and progress.  Neurologists have described her condition as permanent.  Yet her parents and nurses tell of great strides in her brain function and communication. 

But I am not here to tell the story.  I am here to ask the questions.  (The story is available here and here in much greater detail.)  I’ll tell you right now that I don’t have the answers, that is above my pay grade.  But it is not above my pay grade to weigh them out with thoughtful consideration.  And so…

What, in the name of all that is holy, is the right way out of this mess?  The damage is done.  Abbie Dorn will never parent her children in the way that she dreamed.  That is a given.  But is there a way to make this right?  Or at least more right?  Will exposure to their mother bring anything good into the lives of her children?  Will exposure to her children help the health and well-being of the mother?  And whose best interest matters more? 

For Visitation.  Abbie Dorn is not asking for any portion of physical or legal custody, only visitation.  She carried and bore these children, and lost her life as she knew it in the process.  It is her right to see her children periodically; to watch them grow, hear their voices, and see their smiles; and to understand – at whatever level she is capable – that her loss was not in vain.  There is little, if any, risk of harm to the children through time with Abbie.  And the children themselves have a right to know their mother, even if she is but a shell of her former self.  Arguably, with proper coaching and understanding, their lives could be greatly enriched by the addition of their mother’s presence.  Additionally, Abbie herself could improve significantly if inspired by the presence of her children.

Against Visitation.  Daniel Dorn is a single father doing the best that he can in an impossible situation.  The conditions his wife now suffers are tragic, but they should not interrupt his ability to parent his children in as normal a way as he can, given the circumstances.  Cross-country travel to visit a woman who cannot sit, stand, speak, or eat will be disruptive to their upbringing and will never result in a meaningful relationship.  Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of these young children to inspire progress in their mother.

Again, I do not have the answers.  I feel sympathy for Daniel Dorn who lost his spirited wife and is left to parent his children alone.  And yet I feel anger toward him for approaching this decision with so little compassion for his wife and the woman who nearly lost her life to give him his kids.  I feel incredible sympathy for Abbie Dorn, and for her parents who have become full-time caretakers in their retirement years.  And yet I wonder if they have put themselves in Daniel’s shoes and considered the difficulty of single parenting on its own, much less after introducing the complicated topic of a severely disabled parent.

There is no right answer.  There is no happy ending.  And despite the recognition that there are no good answers, I cannot stop myself from asking the questions.

11 Responses to “Whose Best Interest?”

  1. Anne Says:

    Ugh…these are the situations that make me feel sick at my stomach. I don’t have much to add…SO difficult, and so tragic. I want and need a happy ending, and this one doesn’t look good.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    That situation is just…almost impossible. I feel badly for that family, because there’s no easy solution, is there?

  3. Jane Says:

    Personally, I think the answer IS simple. For visitation. The argument against visitation isn’t compelling enough for me. When you have children together you do everything in your power to make sure your children maintain a healthy, strong relationship with the other parent. Sure it’s difficult to be a single parent. I was one at one time. AND, I stayed in the town that my then-husband moved us to, 1000′s of miles away from my family and support system) to keep my daughter near her father after we divorced. It was the right thing to do so that my child could know her father. It’s the only answer I see for the Dorn children. I’m sorry it would inconvenience Daniel Dorn but that’s what happens when you have children. You put them ahead of your own needs. (Stepping down off my soapbox now….)

  4. Gale Says:

    Jane – Thanks for your response here. I’m inclined to agree with you, but tried to look at this from both sides of the fence in spite of my immediate bias. It is hard to be a single parent and I don’t envy Daniel Dorn that job. But, as you say, his own inconvenience isn’t a very compelling argument.

  5. Bridget Says:

    Yikes, hairy situation for sure and I had not heard about it before your post. Seems to me that these kids are going to figure things out soon enough as it will somehow get back to them as they figure out more about life… wouldn’t it be better to have them know? Sure it is going to be hard for them to deal with, it’s a terrible situation, but aren’t we all the people we are today because of the storms we’ve weathered? The unfortunate circumstances we’ve surmounted? Life is unfair and they were exposed to this WAY too early. However, no matter how much the father tries to protect them he can’t change their life story. Their mother loved them so much she gave up 1 healthy life to provide 3 – an ultimate love story.

    I can’t help but think of my son and if I had died (or been incapacitated) on the operating table during his surgical delivery. My wish is for my husband to tell him about me and how much I love him all the time. I guess I need to have this conversation with him tonight so he doesn’t take Dan’s path. I don’t mean to be a simpleton here and not understand him wanting to move on with his life, but she is part of the kids’ life, even if it is difficult to address. I realize those articles were both written with more information from the mother’s side of the case, but I can’t imagine hiding this from 4 year-olds. Isn’t he doing more harm than good by not telling and giving them time to understand and accept?

    I’m surprised I’m so willing to voice my opinion on this subject since I’m usually one who does not like to take a side publically in a sensitive debate, but something about this case has piqued my interest. I’ll be interested to see if anyone else has thoughts one way or the other…

  6. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I hadn’t heard about this case before your post and I find myself sick to my stomach thinking about all of the ways in which this family’s dreams were compromised. Without knowing the full ins-and-outs of the case, my sympathy falls very heavily on the side of the mother. I am not sure of the reasons behind the divorce, but, given Abbie’s sacrifice to bring her children into the world, it seems to me that she deserves the chance to be a part of her children’s lives, regardless of her condition. But, as previous commenters have mentioned, there is simply no easy answer for this family.

    There but for the grace of God go I.

  7. Laura Says:

    When I read about this heartbreaking story, my first instinct was disbelief at the actions of the father. He says he and Abby were happily married when their triplets were born, and yet he served her divorce papers after one year. It seems as if he felt obligated to wait a certain amount of time before officially moving on, and perhaps he would have moved on much sooner had he not cared about what people said or thought of him. I realize that it is unfair to judge the actions of someone that I do not know, someone that is going through an impossibly difficult situation. But if something like this were to happen to my husband, I imagine I would be so heartbroken at the thought of living without him that I would hold on to any form of him that I could, and I would want our children to know him as well…even if it was through the stories that I told them by his hospital bed. I think that the children would adapt, especially if they had been around their mother from the beginning. Dan mentions that he is worried that the children would feel guilt over putting their mother in this condition. This is outrageous and seems like he could be projecting his feelings on them. Perhaps he feels guilty himself and it is much easier for him if she is out of sight, out of mind. And his lawyer is basing their case on the fact that it is not Abby herself asking for visitation – it is her parents asking on her behalf. Sure he would know his wife well enough to predict what she would want, and it seems like he is betraying that by keeping them away from here. Maybe that is why I agree with Jane and feel that visitation is the only option.

  8. Gale Says:

    Laura – Thanks for your thoughtful and articulate response. I had not thought about his “concern” over the children’s guilt actually being a projection of his own guilt. As it sounds like you would too, I know I would have a lot of guilt if I’d behaved this way. I can’t imagine cutting my husband – no matter how incapacitated – out of my life. I still maintain that this isn’t an easy situation. But I don’t think it has to be quite this difficult, either.

  9. Sarah Says:

    This is the first I have heard of this story. I just cannot imagine this reality. It must be painful for every single person who is involved, AND…every single person who has to witness the situation or make a decision that will impact the situation. My sympathies lie mostly with the children, as I think they should. Whether their mother is or isn’t granted visitation rights, those children will always have a missing piece. A mother who isn’t the mother she wanted or needed to be, for her and for them. For Daniel, even.

    Stories like these are almost too difficult for me to hear. To be honest, I nearly stopped reading. But even though I was pulled away from this post more times than…

    Oh my goodness. It has been a full 24 hours since I opened this comment window. And now? I post it. Good grief, the distractions of my life!!!

  10. Jack Says:

    I am familiar with the story and have been thinking about it. If I were completely incapacitated and considered to be brain dead I wouldn’t want my spouse to hang around. There is a lot of life to be lived.

    I wouldn’t want to be forgotten either, but I wouldn’t be hurt or upset over divorce. After all we are saying that I am incapable of providing for my spouse. No sex, no affection, no companionship. BTW, those weren’t listed in order of importance.

    To me the heart of the matter is whether she is “still there.” Because if she is then she deserves to see her children. If she is not, well to a certain extent the point is moot.

    As a father I know that I would do anything and everything to protect and care for my children. So when I think about Abbie’s parents I take that into account. They absolutely want to know that their daughter is there in some capacity and maybe she really is.

    But that is the question now isn’t it, how does one provide confirmation of such a thing.

  11. Dawn @ Marriage Intimacy Says:

    I haven’t heard this case until now. Thank you for sharing this, Gale. This is one truly heart-breaking and sad story. I agree with you that there is no right answer. I think the most important thing to consider is the children’s welfare. Will visitations be more beneficial or detrimental for the children? Will visitations affect the psychological well-being of the children? I pity all of the parties involved here. I hope that this would have a happy ending; I’m an eternal optimist.