Protecting the Vulnerable

Has anyone seen the movie, I am Sam lately? It is a 2001 drama with a killer soundtrack about a developmentally delayed gentleman played by Sean Penn. Mr. Penn was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as “Sam.” It was a first leading role for a seven-year-old, stinking adorable, Dakota Fanning. She played Sam’s precocious daughter “Lucy”. Michelle Pfeiffer portrayed a ruthless attorney fighting for Sam’s custodial rights against an equally cutthroat county attorney.

The soul of this movie is the profound familial bond between Sam and Lucy. They each experience unspeakable trauma when they are parted for the first time in their lives by the foster care system. I saw this movie in the theater as a senior in high school (never anticipating that I would one day represent parents in child protection matters). That was 16 years ago. Most of what I remembered involved the personalities and the relationships between the characters. Over the weekend I watched I Am Sam for the first time since then at the suggestion of my brother, who thought I would enjoy it in light of all of my child protection work.

16-years, motherhood, and a law school degree later I was struck by something entirely different in this viewing: the county’s indifference toward Sam as it fights to remove his daughter from his care. Sam is a caring, hard-working father. He also has the intellectual capacity of a 7-year-old child. His job at Starbucks is limited to wiping tables and straightening sugar packets as he lacks the skillset to make coffee. The movie is resplendent with examples of Sam being exploited:

  • It is uncovered in trial that he suffered unthinkable abuse as a child.

  • He is expected to navigate the Los Angeles bus system on his own and he is judged harshly when he is late to arrive at unfamiliar places.

  • He lives by himself in an apartment that does not appear to be tailored to residents with special needs.

  • His daughter is conceived with a homeless woman who does not inform him that she was only sexually intimate with him to procure safe lodgings for a night. Sam is shocked when this woman takes off running down the street after being discharged from the hospital, leaving him alone to raise a newborn.

  • Child Protective services gets involved with Sam and Lucy in the first place because a prostitute tries to solicit Sam. Sam innocently starts to go somewhere with this woman having no idea that she is a sex worker. Sam is arrested forthwith and is achingly violated by the invasive nature of being searched and seized.

  • His seven-year-old daughter manages to hoodwink him. Lucy misses him desperately so she sneaks out of her foster home and convinces him to run away with her and start a new life so they will not be parted again. Sam goes along with it, and the county attorney salivates over this evidence that Sam is an unfit father.

On second viewing I was surprised by Sam’s complete vulnerability as portrayed in this film. Sam appears to be in his forties. This flavor of government indifference toward a vulnerable adult is rare. No mention is made of a guardian to help him navigate Los Angeles – a large urban center that can intimidate seasoned travelers. He tries to buy his daughter school shoes with no apparent knowledge or guidance of what to expect to spend at a Pay-Less Shoes Source. He learns to feed a baby with the assistance of a neighbor who is too traumatized from her childhood to leave her apartment, much less help protect Sam from exploitation outside of their small corner of the city. Sam has no assistance securing services for himself. He apparently is on his own to find childcare for his daughter while he works. Sam is also on his own to find a lawyer to represent him in court so he calls a fast-talking, high stakes Hollywood attorney because she has the biggest ad in the yellow pages. She ends up representing him pro bono, and grudgingly. I know a lot of caring, skilled county attorneys who would never stand for someone like Sam to navigate life without a proper guardian to help him with all of these aspects of daily life that so many of us take for granted.

I, and my employer, Teresa Molinaro, handle a lot of guardianship cases. This is a legal area that is especially pertinent to the parents of children with special needs. The government has an interest in protecting vulnerable adults – even those who are blessed during childhood with loving, attentive parents. Once those children turn 18 the government steps in to make sure they are protected from exploitation. Their parents must petition the court to become the legal guardians of their adult children. These newly minted adults are provided with court appointed attorneys armed with legal knowledge to prevent an unsuitable guardian from being appointed. No one, not even a parent, can be appointed without scrutiny and the potential to have the guardianship challenged. Sometimes guardians are relatives. Other times they are professionals.

If you are anticipating that a child or a loved one of yours is in need of a guardian, please call our office so we can assist you in the process. We are seasoned litigators and are comfortable handling both straight-forward and complicated matters. We can assist in a guardian being appointed. We can help a guardian resign. We can challenge a guardianship appointment when you feel a guardian has acted improperly. We urge courts to restore clients to capacity when a guardianship is no longer necessary. We are care about families. Let us help you to protect yours.

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