Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Homeless mother in Tennessee wants her daughter with Down syndrome back

From The Tennessean:

Lisa Arnold (pictured) is 20 years old and has Down syndrome and the mental capacity of a 3-year-old.

She’s also homeless.

Before a Davidson County judge ordered her to have only supervised visits with her mother, Lisa peddled The Contributor newspaper with her mother at the intersection of Old Hickory Boulevard and Franklin Road in Brentwood. Together, they were one of the top sellers of the newspaper sold by the homeless.

But in January, a group including a disability advocate, a singer-songwriter and a former police officer brought concerns of Lisa’s health and safety under her mother’s care to Probate Judge Randy Kennedy. He ordered a local lawyer to serve as her court-appointed guardian to represent her interests in the courtroom. He granted temporary conservatorship over Lisa to Belinda Mitchell, a caseworker with The Arc of Davidson County, a nonprofit that helps the disabled.

Lisa now lives in a group home for disabled women and attends Harris-Hillman Special Education School.

A hearing to determine whether Lisa should remain in the court’s care or return to her mother will be held June 8.

Lisa’s mother, Renee Arnold, is fighting the conservatorship. Repeated attempts to reach her for comment were unsuccessful. Her former lawyer, Philip Irwin, declined to comment. The court file was sealed by the judge last week because of its sensitive nature, a court clerk said.

Another group, which includes some members of Brentwood Hills Church of Christ and homeless advocate Jeannie Alexander, has rallied to support Renee Arnold, saying others are trying to unnecessarily separate mother and daughter.

“What if Renee has genuinely chosen the lifestyle of moving from friend’s house to friend’s house and motel to motel, as the way she prefers for her and Lisa to live,” Alexander writes in a recent commentary in The Contributor. “Does such a choice necessarily make her unfit or crazy? ...
“I have never doubted that Renee loves Lisa, and despite the long hours of vending, I have never doubted that Renee and Lisa are better off with the income that selling The Contributor provides.”

But according to Mitchell’s petition to appoint an emergency conservator, Renee Arnold exploits and neglects her daughter by “using her to garner sympathy and donations by having her sit beside her” while selling the newspaper.

The petition also states that Renee Arnold has been seen encouraging her daughter to kiss homeless men and that Mitchell is “afraid of sexual exploitation” of Lisa by her mother.

Although former Brentwood police officer Nick Collins is listed in the petition, there are no criminal charges against Renee Arnold.

In her Contributor column, Alexander says her offers of help were initially met with resistance from Renee Arnold because of Arnold’s religious beliefs against accepting packaged food.

Jesse Walker, a singer/songwriter and Nashville transplant, said she and her mother tried to help the homeless mother and daughter on a cold, rainy day last November. Lisa appeared dehydrated and frost-bitten, and had been sitting on the grass for hours in a soiled diaper, said Walker, who is among those listed in the petition.

Compelled to help“I felt I had no choice but to stop and do what I could to help them,” Walker said. “When you see someone with Down syndrome, sitting on a street corner in the freezing cold, begging for money, you want to fix it. That’s it. You just want to fix it.”

But Renee Arnold declined Walker’s offer to take Lisa to the hospital to be treated for dehydration.

So, Walker offered to give Gatorade to Lisa. But Renee Arnold declined, saying her daughter would then have to go to the bathroom. Lisa likes to sell the paper, Renee Arnold told Walker.

Walker went to the Brentwood Police Department, where officers were well aware of the situation. They had fielded calls of concern for the Arnolds before. There was nothing they could do because, although Lisa appears much younger, she is an adult.

Walker called The Arc of Davidson County and found out that the organization, which provides services to disabled people, also had fielded dozens of calls of concern for the pair.

Mitchell, a caseworker there, started holding weekly meetings for folks like Walker who were frustrated and concerned with the situation.

Together, in January, they brought the emergency petition to the court.
Andra Hedrick, a local lawyer who was appointed by the court as an unbiased party in the matter, filed her first report with the court on April 15, just before the case was sealed. At the time of her report, Hedrick wrote that she was not prepared to make a recommendation to the court at that time but that Mitchell “should continue to serve as temporary conservator for the time being.”

Hedrick’s report states that Lisa is eligible for about $650 per month in Social Security disability income.

Lisa and her mother have been selling The Contributor since last summer, Alexander writes in her column.

Renee Arnold, also known as Renate Gisela Hofmeister, is a native of Germany, Alexander writes. She was once “obsessed with her career” as a corporate buyer and tells stories of vacations to the Italian countryside and of learning to paint in France.

A native German speaker, who also is fluent in English and Hebrew, Renee Arnold teaches free Hebrew lessons on Saturdays at a coffee shop in Belle Meade, Alexander writes. She won’t accept money, Alexander says, because Hebrew is the “language of God.”

Renee Arnold married an American soldier who was stationed in Germany, and the couple moved to the States, settling in upstate New York. Renee became a certified child-care provider. The couple had a son in 1986, and Lisa was born in 1990.

Renee Arnold’s husband ultimately didn’t want to care for a special-needs child, and the couple divorced when Lisa was 5, Alexander writes.

The mother and daughter lived in Mennonite communities on and off and found their way to Nashville, where the mother schooled her daughter because she didn’t feel her daughter was being challenged academically at Harris-Hillman, Alexander writes.

At some point, Renee Arnold lost her job and then her home, and she and her daughter began living out of a car, jam-packed with odds and ends.
Opposes separationAlexander writes their family should not be broken up.

“Such people challenge the boundaries of middle-class American values and our predilection for over consumption and the false security of an inflated mortgage and a two-car garage,” Alexander writes. “Perhaps we are so invested in convincing ourselves that we are doing it the right way, because otherwise we would be forced to confront how unsustainable and crazy our way of life so often is.”

Walker says the situation to her is much more simple.

“There are nights when I look at my husband and say, ‘Our dog has a better life than that poor girl,’ ” Walker said. “I just feel led, for whatever reason, to help her. She can’t speak for herself. I don’t want her to die on the streets.”

Now, it’s up to a judge to decide.