Fighting for a Disabled Mother's Right to See Her Children

After a brain injury a mother's family fights for her to see her triplets

April 13, 2010, 10:08 PM

April 14, 2010— -- Growing up, Abbie Dorn always dreamed of becoming a mother.

Now, at age 34, she is the mother of three healthy toddlers. Her home is filled with pictures of the children -- triplets named Esti, Reuvi and Yossi.

But in the four years since her children were born, Dorn has not been able to talk to them. She can't hold them or watch them play.

That's because Dorn endured severe brain damage following their birth.

Now, while her children run and play in their Los Angeles home, Dorn's family -- more than 2,500 miles away in Myrtle Beach, S.C., is locked in a legal battle with the children's father to grant Dorn the right to see her children.

The family's lawsuit, which could make its way to a courtroom by May, could become a landmark in defining what it means to be a parent, especially when that parent is disabled.

Dorn's story began happily in 2002. After graduating from college in Ohio and becoming a chiropractor in Atlanta, she married Dan Dorn, a devoutly religious man who shared her beliefs in Orthodox Judaism.

They settled in Los Angeles near his family, and began to plan a family of their own. But Dorn struggled to conceive. After turning to fertility treatments, she finally received word in the fall of 2005 that she was expecting triplets.

"She was so excited to be pregnant -- she was beginning to say, 'I don't know if I'll ever get to be a mother,'" Dorn's mother, Susan Cohen, said.

But happiness turned to heartbreak after Dorn delivered the three children. What happened in the hospital in the hours after the triplets were born is not clear. And the case was eventually settled out of court for more than $7 million. What the family does know is that Dorn began bleeding internally. Her injury was not caught soon enough, and after a series of missteps, Dorn's brain was deprived of oxygen, leaving her severely brain damaged.

Since the day her three children were born, Dorn has required around-the-clock care. She can't speak or move on her own, and she remains in bed unless one of her caretakers moves her to a chair.

Dorn spent nearly a year in hospital and rehabilitation care in California near her children.

Dorn's parents said her husband, Dan, 33, visited "all the time" in the days following her injury.

"He did manage to bring the children a couple of times … and I did put them in her arms so she could hold them," Susan Cohen said.

But eventually, Dan Dorn's visits became less frequent. Then, on the anniversary of his wife's injury, Dan called Dorn's parents.

"He said, 'Well I need to move on,'" said Paul Cohen.

Dorn's husband eventually divorced her in 2007. In court documents, his attorney said he was "faced with the necessity of beginning to rebuild his life."

Since the divorce, Abbie Dorn has been moved to her parents' home in Myrtle Beach, where she undergoes a daily regime of therapies and rehab.

Dorn's parents said her now ex-husband has refused to bring the children to see her. They said he refuses to send videos or to allow Dorn to see the children via a webcam.

In court filings, Dan's attorneys argue that exposing the children to their severely disabled mother would traumatize them. Medical experts hired by his attorneys to review her records said she would never recover.

But Dorn's parents believe otherwise. They say Dan Dorn's experts are looking at old records, and that after years of rehabilitation, it is clear she has brain function, can understand when people talk to her and can read short passages.

Having devoted the past five years to her rehabilitation, Susan and Paul Cohen believe their daughter communicates through her eyes.

They say when Dorn has one long blink it means "yes." When she is in pain, she cries out. When she is happy, they say, she can smile. Her eyes follow movements in the room. Her caretakers say several times a day she will say "yeah" or "no" in response to direct questions.

ABC News spent a day with Dorn and watched her undergo therapy. When asked if seeing her children was important to her, Dorn replied with a long blink.

"A mother needs to see her children, she gave them life," Paul Cohen said. "Her blood is in their veins. These children need to know they have a mommy and she needs to know her children are growing."

The family's lawyer agrees, arguing that Dorn has rights that have been ignored.

"Abbie has a right, a constitutional, legal right to have her parents, her own representatives, to request visitation on her behalf," Lisa Helfend, an attorney for Dorn and her parents, said.

ABC News' requests for an interview with Dan Dorn were declined.

In a statement, Dan's attorney, Vicki Green, said, "while the grandparents criticize the father, they denied him any footage or medical update of Abbie's condition before opening their home to 'Good Morning America.' This case is sad and tragic. However, it is also legally complex, and there is no reason to try this case by public opinion."

Dan Dorn's medical experts argue that Abbie Dorn is "in a vegetative state with virtually no hope for recovery."

The Cohens believe Dan Dorn is "fearful for his children" but "lacks knowledge" of the situation.

Dorn's mother believes her daughter is still "there," saying Dorn cries, smirks and even smiles.

"I know that Abbie is there ... it's well beyond a mother's love," Susan Cohen said.

After Dorn's injury, her mother had a painting commissioned for their daughter. It hangs in her bedroom.

It shows Dorn walking the dunes of South Carolina, with her three laughing children.

It is the picture-perfect life her parents believe Dorn should have had, and that they refuse to give up on providing for her. It is the image that drives their care for her, and, they say, motivates the lawsuit they have filed to give her the right to visit with her children.

"If all she can say to them is one or two words and show in her eyes how much she loves them, I think that will mean a great deal to those children," Susan Cohen said.

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