Starting in October of last year, I was invited to be part of a heist.
The context for the terminology is that I’m part of an online community that’s mostly some combination of mentally ill LGBT survivors of various things. The community has collectively facilitated a few cross-country moves to get people out of bad situations, and when it’s adults moving away from other controlling adults we tend to refer to it as stealing the person who’s moving away.
What I was invited to was the careful planning of facilitating someone moving away from their parents as soon as they turned 18. There were 20 people in the group chat working on planning and there was specifically a getaway driver, so: planning a heist.
I didn’t talk much about this in public as it was going on, because while the planning was going on, the person involved was still a minor, and we had major privacy and safety concerns. Afterwards, there were other complications. But I was able to get permission from the most involved people to talk about this, and check in about level of detail to share, because Nick is now an adult. Nick is more of an adult than I am, because my adulthood was just assumed, whereas his was adjudicated in a court of law after his parents perjured themselves and used the legal system as a tool for harassment by trying to obtain guardianship over him and get him declared legally incompetent.
I wasn’t involved in the first stages of this: Nick had been involved in the community for a couple years, having sought it out when he was questioning if some behavior on his parents part was normal (it wasn’t) and working on stuff related to his gender identity (he’s trans – I only mention it because it’s relevant later). I didn’t spend much time talking to him because I don’t spend a whole ton of time on the community board and when I do I don’t tend to seek out teenagers to talk to because teenagers. But my friend Evan was going to be Nick’s new roommate, and Evan has known me for twelve years, so Evan tagged me in because I am relentlessly goal-oriented and logistics is something I do well. Also because I was Madison and could help with local details.
But something that had happened early on, before I was involved, was Seebs (who runs the forum board and paid the lawyers) had provided Nick with a backup phone. Nick’s parents turned off Nick’s internet access and cell phone service at 8:30 every night, and Seebs found it concerning that he wouldn’t have any way to contact people in an emergency. Also, in general, community policy is to not isolate depressed teenagers any more than necessary, since that tends to lead to bad endings.
Early in October, shortly after Nick’s September 28 discharge from inpatient care due to suicidal ideation, his parents found the phone and confiscated it. Seebs then requested it back, because it’s his property. It took I think two weeks for it to be sent back. It then ended up back with Nick shortly thereafter. Obviously.
A lot of the next couple of months was moral support, with some planning. Nick said on a few occasions that he didn’t think he could make it there and wanted out, but it was important for him to stay until he was legally an adult to avoid any legal trouble when he fled the state with our help. We were optimistic then.
Nick was able to ship some things he wanted to be able to keep to Evan, with the help of FedEx accounts and friends in the Boston area who were able to take packages to the post office. We were also able to figure out the most effective way to transport Nick, who didn’t have a state ID, just a school ID. That ruled out both the Greyhound and flying, so Evan ended up buying him a train ticket for the day after his birthday. We thought that should be fine, but if for some reason he was prevented from getting on the train, the backup plan was for Evan to drive out with me riding along as company. I’m writing about our backup plans because none of this was done haphazardly: we were careful.
In the meantime, nonsense was escalating – Nick’s parents had persuaded someone to prescribe him antipsychotics based on the idea that his plan to move to Wisconsin as soon as he turned 18 was delusional, and on October 6th let him know they were transferring him to an ‘alternate’ school for a ‘month-long assessment’. In his regular high school he had friends and was doing AP Calculus, but in the new school he wasn’t given work anywhere near his level and was assessed for his behavior. To his knowledge, no one assessed him for competence, but his parents apparently found the support they wanted there. After his month-long assessment, he was supposed to be transferred back to his old school, but that never materialized and he ended up with nothing to do for a week while he was supposed to be in school.
Eventually Nick ended up properly on winter break, and time was ticking down. His parents were starting to try to guilt him into staying, talking about how disappointed his siblings and grandparents would be if he missed Christmas. Regardless, the day after his birthday Nick rose early, packed up the things he couldn’t bear to leave, and met the getaway driver and their spouse in the street. Nick’s father pursued them down the street, shouting about how Nick was a literal 12 year old, until he was caught behind a school bus.
Nick got safely on the train, and entirely too many hours later debarked in Chicago, where he met up with someone else from the community, currently on leave from their military job to visit family for the holidays.
A day or two later, and better-rested, Nick and the Chicago contact drove up to Madison, where the first order of business was to get Nick a winter coat. He is from Boston. They have real winters there. He had not had a real winter coat since he was 13. I am baffled and judgmental about the parents’ failure on that front, but it’s only one item out of an overall pattern.
A day or two after that, Nick’s parents asked for Evan’s address (which they’d had months ago, but things get lost) in order to send Nick’s Christmas presents. Evan provided it, and there was cautious hope that in the future Nick might not end up completely estranged from his parents, just cordially so.
Presents arrived, Nick came to my New Year’s Eve party where he socialized with our fairly diverse selection of friends and a great time was had by all. Nick made sure to avoid the cookies and stick to the gluten-free party food, because Nick has Celiac but manages it quite well himself with very little fuss or fanfare. He continues to manage, including grocery shopping and doing his own cooking.
On January 4th, Evan and Nick arrived home to find a notice on their front door that an attempt had been made to serve papers on Nick.
We now knew why Nick’s parents had made the effort to send Nick’s presents.
The next day we were able to arrange Nick being served, because there was very little we could do in reaction without more information. I say ‘we,’ but Nick made the relevant phone call.
Nick was then served with papers indicating his parents’ suit for guardianship. Guardianship tends to be assumed unless formally objected to, because in most cases it’s a matter of people looking out for family, not . . . this. Reading over the paperwork kind of set up a furor, and not just because they’d filed the day before his birthday and said nothing: on the one hand, this was serious and none of us had ever dealt with this kind of thing before and Nick’s freedom was very high stakes. On the other hand, they committed perjury five times in the paperwork. They indicated he was a year younger than he actually is, that he hadn’t had a guardian at all in the last 60 days (the papers were served within two weeks of his 18th birthday), that he was still domiciled in MA, and that his 10-year-old brother was not a minor. Our favorite, though, was that his mother, who had filled out this paperwork, had checked a box indicating that she herself was legally incompetent. And then signed it and had a lawyer approve it and submitted it to the court system.
So we leapt into action. I asked for lawyer recommendations on Facebook, because I am friends with lawyers, disability advocates, teachers, and people who work with at-risk youth – including ones in Massachusetts, where the suit was filed. We sent the paperwork to Seebs and to one of the community lawyers, who isn’t based in a relevant state and doesn’t specialize in family or disability law, but could help us navigate legal jargon and what we should do next.
Unrelatedly, a lot of descriptions of this community sound like setups for a bad joke: a priest, a lawyer and a programmer walk into a bar . . .
That night, Seebs filled out a letter to the court attesting to his experience over the last couple of years with Nick and belief in his competence, Evan and Nick looked for appropriate forms and how to formally object, and I tidied part of their living room, read forms when asked, and fulfilled my role as one of nature’s managers by keeping them on track for the very specific information we were looking for instead of getting lost in the bureaucratic morass. We found that the entire putative basis for the suit was Nick’s Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. For those not familiar with autism, it’s a spectrum for a reason, and can manifest in a number of ways that range from ‘irritating sometimes’ to ‘persistently debilitating.’ For one person I know, it mostly shows up in their complete refusal to deal with the texture of velvet or most faux fur, and you likely wouldn’t suspect otherwise. Stereotypes about autism are never helpful, but in this situation they were actively damaging.
The next day had to start with phone calls, because one of the things required for incompetence is a medical assessment completed within the last 30 days, which we deeply suspected did not exist. Nick asked, and the clerk responded that Nick would have to ask his guardian. Nick’s response, reasonably, was that he’s 18 and doesn’t have a guardian, to which the clerk responded that the judge involved had granted temporary guardianship earlier in the day.
Nick, reasonably, panicked and hung up.
So then it was really, really time to get a lawyer. That evening, though, Nick also called the police non-emergency line to let them know that his parents were harassing him through legal stuff and ask how he could best protect himself.
The next day was go time. I had a list of numbers and organizations, but we figured it was probably important to have Nick out in front of this, being obviously and obnoxiously competent at all manner of legal types. He was also the best candidate to make the phone calls because, even though we care about him and Seebs and Evan had written statements of support for him, he was the only one with legal standing in the matter. He went through several of the numbers before he found a lawyer who was available and whose specialty this was, and Nick set a meeting for that night.
We move quickly when we need to. Nick and Evan packed up all the forms, including a photocopied version of the papers from Nick’s parents with the factual errors highlighted – just the factual ones, as highlighting the grammatical ones as well would have made the whole thing yellow – and Nick’s affidavit and Evan’s statement and a printout of Seebs’ statement.
That was Friday evening.
There was nothing to do over the weekend but fret.
Monday Nick and Evan went to Briarpatch in Madison to sort out Nick getting into school – the earliest appointment they could get. The appointment had been set for a couple of weeks, because everyone involved was very serious about Nick transitioning smoothly and graduating in Madison. Later that day, Nick signed a sub-lease with Evan. He couldn’t do so before, because there’s a legal loophole Briarpatch had encouraged them to slip through. Homeless youth can enroll in high school without getting documentation from previous high schools. This had been the plan from the beginning, because, while this level of nonsense was unexpected, cooperation and helpfulness from Nick’s parents had never been assumed.
Nick had already been domiciled in Wisconsin, though: the lease just made it official, made Evan’s house his legal place of residence.
This also meant that the lawyer they’d met with that morning was able to send in an affidavit that MA did not have jurisdiction: he’d had hope that the original affidavit that Nick was competent would make it go away, but was on board with and even encouraged the approach that with stakes and a timeframe like this you want to bury the opposition.
School enrollment was going to take a while: second semester at his new school didn’t start until January 23, and there was no real point shoving him in classes right in time for finals. I got him school supplies that Tuesday anyway, because we were at Target and it was one less thing for them to deal with.
Nick started school, and did okay.
Nick managed to get insurance, set up appointments with his new doctor, and get his first appointment with a gender specialist. That wasn’t something that could be followed up on immediately, because insurance requires a lot of hoops, but Nick was excited because this was something that had mattered to him for years but that his parents had actively opposed him pursuing.
I continued to be involved because Nick needed some help with stuff – surprisingly, dealing with school and court stuff and medical complications and multiple kinds of appointments and ADHD and depression and PTSD means things like ‘follow up with your doctor about that referral to that one specialist’ can fall through the cracks sometimes.
There was an initial court date, at which the judge basically just went ‘I need more time to think about this, come back in three months.’
Three months later, there was another court date, when the MA lawyer had to wait seven hours before even getting in front of the judge, at which the judge basically went ‘I don’t understand what we’re doing here, let me look at this and come back in three months.’
Which was – great. So great. Not stressful at all.
Nick’s parents kept texting him, which was generally unideal. Nick asked through his lawyer that they contact him only through lawyers.
June 09 Nick picked up his diploma. One of the primary things his parents had claimed was that he wouldn’t have been able to graduate from a normal high school. Directly after picking up the diploma, we went bike shopping: Seebs bought Nick a bike as a graduation present so he could have more independence in transport, and also because Nick’s bike was something that had to be left behind.
Nick got a job through Briarpatch – doing gardening. He got his medical appointments approved as time off before he started. He started work, and organizing getting paperwork together for the July 12 court date. In the meantime, his parents kept texting him, which was unideal. It included a great deal of guilt tripping for not calling them. They are a class act.
At the July 12 court date, Nick’s MA lawyer was armed with paperwork, with affidavits Nick had gone out of his way to acquire, and with proof of Nick’s graduation. Nick’s parents lawyer brought, uh, their complaints about him not texting them back?
The judge said he’d mail out his verdict, which – probably understandably – was not super reassuring. We had a normal teenager with disabilities but demonstrable life skills and a collection of supporting paperwork. They had perjury and whining. Oh, right – perjury, whining, and the weight of how these things usually go.
Finally, on July 21, the MA lawyer sent an email that the judge had dismissed the guardianship case. Since I heard about it from Evan relating what an email to Nick said, I’m not sure precisely what the grounds were – it could be the lack of jurisdiction, it could be the absolute nightmare of the parents’ paperwork, it could be Nick’s obvious clinical competence.
He’s finally, legally, free, and so I get to talk about the absolute bullshit that can stem from ableism and a casual belief that one’s children are possessions rather than people. A lot of people fell down – starting with Nick’s parents, but including their lawyer, the medical personnel who were complicit in the initial medical assessment claims, and the legal personnel who wouldn’t give Nick information relevant to his own case. But Nick prevailed. It’s been a year, and the situation couldn’t be more different: he’s well on his way to independent housing, he has a high school diploma, and he lives with people who treat him as a person.
Happy birthday, Nick.