Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tennessee community rallies on both sides of custody case involving grown daughter with Down syndrome

From The Tennessean:

A formerly homeless mother battling for custody of her child with Down syndrome was described as neglectful, abusive, a shoplifter and a hoarder by her estranged older daughter in court Tuesday.

Sandra Kohler, 39, testified that her mother, Renee Arnold (pictured), beat her when she was a child and neglected to take her to the doctor even though she suffered seizures.

“I helped her shoplift when I was a child,” Kohler said in court. “It didn’t occure to me until later on that I was exploited.”

Davidson County Probate Judge Randy Kennedy kept the court hearing going until 9 p.m. But with a dozen more potential witnesses, Kennedy said the case would resume on July 25.

The custody battle over Lisa Arnold, 20, who has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old, started in January after a group of good Samaritans filed a court petition stating concerns over her safety.

Renee Arnold, also known as Renate Arnold, and her disabled daughter peddled The Contributor, a publication written and sold by the homeless and formerly homeless, at the Brentwood exit off of Interstate 65 and at other locations.

The court granted conservatorship of Lisa Arnold to Belinda Mitchell, a caseworker with The Arc of Davidson County, a nonprofit that helps the disabled.

The community has rallied on both sides — some don’t want the daughter separated from the mother; others are concerned about Lisa Arnold’s safety and development. The mother and daughter are well known in the community, both in Davidson and Williamson counties. People have often donated money, food and shelter to the duo.

Mitchell testified that she met the homeless mother and daughter in October when she helped them get a hotel room. Mitchell noticed that Lisa Arnold was often peddling the paper in the cold, improperly dressed, with cracked lips and face.

Renee Arnold’s lawyer, Randy Lucas, painted Mitchell as a controlling advocate during cross-examination. Mitchell had suggested to Renee Arnold that she should take advantage of services, including medical, to help Lisa.

Lucas asked if Mitchell’s motivation to have Lisa removed stemmed from the mother’s resistance to getting help.

“Yes,” Mitchell replied.

Jad Duncan, Mitchell’s attorney, put Kohler on the stand first. She had to catch a flight back to Chicago, where she teaches at local universities and colleges.

Kohler, who was born in Chicago, said she has not seen her mother in 20 years. She decribed an unstable childhood. She said that she was raised in Germany in her maternal grandparents’ home, where her mother would hoard items such as furniture.

The family moved to New York and then to Belgium, where she went into foster care after she complained to social services. She ran away and returned to the U.S. in 1989.