Monica Mukai, left, Ryan Morris’ aunt, has been appointed his legal guardian, taking him home 29 years after his birth. The two on a recent trip to Disneyland. (Courtesy Monica Mukai)
They clutched the papers in their hands, disbelieving. Was this really, truly happening? After all this time?
They rushed from the Riverside courthouse and dashed to the group home in Lake Elsinore where Ryan Morris had been recently placed by the public guardian’s office. “May 5, 2023,” Monica Mukai wrote neatly, as she was asked to do. “Ryan Morris is being picked up by me and Ryan’s grandmother, Tamara Mazzei Mukai. I am Ryan’s aunt & Ryan’s finally coming home after 29 years!!!
“I was appointed Ryan’s conservator this morning,” she wrote, barely believing it, “and will leave a copy with Willy for your records. Thank you!”
An elated Nonna Mukai — “grandmother” in Italian — packed up Morris’ things while Aunt Monica Mukai handled paperwork downstairs. They drove back to Orange County before the universe had a chance to change its mind, belting out the song Nonna used to sing when Ryan and his identical twin brother Ronald were toddlers. “We’re going to the beach, we’re going to the beach!” they warbled to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell….”
The song was a staple before California permanently cleaved Ryan Morris from his biological family, in a manner unlikely to be tolerated today. Before the court slapped them with a gag order as they battled foster parent Michelle Morris-Kerin for custody. Before the court allowed Morris-Kerin to adopt him over the family’s vehement objections. Before Morris-Kerin cut all ties with his blood relatives — even with Morris’ identical twin brother.
Morris-Kerin didn’t lose her foster care license until a disabled child died an agonizing death on her watch. She didn’t lose her ability to visit and care for her profoundly disabled adult children until prosecutors accused her of willful cruelty, as well as lewd/lascivious conduct with dependent adults (“with the intent of arousing, appealing to, and gratifying the lust, passions, and sexual desires” of herself, her husband and the dependent people, according to the indictment of Morris-Kerin and her husband).
Ryan Morris was one of those abused in the Morris-Kerin home, according to court documents. His bio family racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills over the decades trying to “free” him, and it had finally come to this. As they sang in the car, Nonna Mukai changed the lyrics to “We’re going to San Juan, We’re going to San Juan, yes we are, we’re going to San Juan.” There was a beat, and when she added the errant “Capistrano,” they laughed until they cried.
Ronald and Ryan were born three months early at Huntington Beach Hospital, as tiny and frail as baby birds. Ronald, the healthy twin, came late in the evening on Jan. 9, 1994. Ryan followed 2½ hours later, after midnight on Jan. 10.
The infants were swept immediately into state custody. Their mother had a history of mental illness and had not received prenatal care, according to a social worker’s report at the time. Nonna Mukai was ready to step up: She already had custody of her daughter’s two older children, and intended to become legal guardian for her new grandsons as well. When the twins were about 16 months old, Nonna Mukai got half her wish: Ronald was healthy enough to come home. But Ryan wasn’t.
Ryan had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, asthma and myriad other maladies, according to court records. His motor skills and speech were impaired. He was prone to seizures. He required care 24/7, much more specialized care than Nonna Mukai could provide, officials told her. She retorted that she’d happily learn whatever skills were necessary — but Ryan was placed in one specialized foster home after another for the first few years of his life. This care that cost the state some $5,000 per month, and at the time, it would only pay foster homes and institutional programs, not families.
The family visited Ryan weekly and often took him home to San Clemente for overnight visits. Twin Ronald’s bedroom was yellow, optimistically furnished with two beds – one for each boy. The bond between brothers was obvious, their older sister later told the court: “Sometimes they would just go on and on, mimicking each other and laughing, that they forgot anyone else was even there.”
As the twins approached their fourth birthday, Ryan was transferred to the Morris-Kerin foster home in the Tustin foothills, which catered to severely disabled children. Morris-Kerin had gained a small measure of fame for “If I Should Die Before I Wake,” a disturbing novel of father-daughter incest that she said was based on a friend’s experience.
Nonna Mukai was not impressed. The children in Morris-Kerin’s home could not walk or speak. She worried Ryan would become isolated and lonely. Thus the battle began.
Morris-Kerin was once a Los Angeles County adoption social worker. She made reports that cast doubt on the bio family’s ability to care for Ryan or accept his disabilities. He’d come back from visits with scrapes and bruises, Morris-Kerin said — which is what happens when children play, Nonna Mukai tried to tell the court.
In the end, the court concluded that the boy and Morris-Kerin had forged a strong bond, and his “great developmental strides” would be jeopardized if he went to his biological family. Morris-Kerin legally adopted Ryan in 2002 and quickly cut off all communication with his bio family. Nonna Mukai wept that she wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye.
Soon Orange County officials were raising serious concerns about “the quality of care and health and safety of the consumers residing at the Michelle Morris Home,” according to documents provided to the Orange County Register. Morris fought back, suing officials and accusing them of slander, defamation and violations of child-abuse reporting laws. Officials wrongly accused her of suffering from “Munchhausen-By-Proxy” – a behavior disorder where caretakers exaggerate children’s health problems to gain attention and sympathy – and of subjecting children to unnecessary or inappropriate medical treatment, Morris-Kerin’s suit said.
The agency’s insurer agreed to settle the suit and pay Morris-Kerin $750,000 with no admission of wrongdoing, rather than face a jury trial where disabled children might take the stand. “We are being persecuted,” Morris-Kerin said at the time, moving her operation to Murrieta. She was licensed as a foster in Riverside County in 2007, where officials continued to place severely disabled children in her care despite repeated red flags.
When Ryan Morris finally reached the age of majority in 2015 — when, despite his disabilities, he was supposed to be able to make his own decisions, rather than have Morris-Kerin make decisions for him — the bio family pushed to be part of his life with renewed resolve. They were stunned to learn how fearful he had become — he was told again and again that his bio family was evil — and stunned to learn that he was married.
To a man of regular intelligence. Nearly twice his age. Despite having the intellectual capacity of a kindergartener.
Morris-Kerin promised him a cell phone if he got married, Ryan Morris later told a psychologist.
At the ceremony, he was confused and concerned, mistaking his wedding for a baptism.
Ryan Morris’ husband, truck driver Sean Spicer, welcomed the family warmly at first. He had his own issues with Morris-Kerin.
The family supported Spicer’s request to replace Morris-Kerin as Ryan Morris’ legal guardian, and Spicer succeeded. The family finally began regular visits, but warm feelings soon evaporated: The bio family feared that Spicer was manipulating and abusing Ryan Morris, and began a legal fight to oust him as legal guardian as well.
In 2019, a Riverside judge removed Spicer as Morris’ conservator, citing “numerous instances of abusive behavior” such as threatening to send Morris back to his adoptive mother’s house when he misbehaved, threatening to take his ring off and end the marriage, threatening to send Morris for emergency mental health treatment, and punishing Morris by restricting visits with his biological family.
The Public Guardian’s Office assumed temporary conservatorship and found Morris a new home. Family members petitioned again to be his legal guardian. So did Spicer. So did Morris-Kerin. Years passed, filled with legal wrangling and rancor.
After Morris-Kerin’s arrest, she was forbidden to see Ryan and her other adopted children (trial for her and her husband is slated for Sept. 25). Spicer dropped his objections, saying that Ryan Morris was happy when he was with his family. And finally, on May 5, after nearly three decades of state-imposed separation, the court appointed Monica Mukai as Ryan Morris’ legal conservator. Attorney Charles S. Krolikowski of Newmeyer & Dillion LLP shepherded them through, and is now a family hero.
Journey not over, just beginning
Morris’ new home is in Mukai’s charming bungalow on historic Los Rios Street in old San Juan Capistrano. He has his own bedroom, outfitted with Mickey Mouse sheets. They giggle as they use the Water Pik and brush their teeth together in the jack-and-jill bathroom. But he’s a little afraid of her pet rabbit.
“I have been on pins and needles,” Mukai said. “I want to make sure he’s comfortable.”
The family is under no illusions that the road ahead is an easy one. Change is hard on Morris. It will take him time to adjust to his new life. He’ll be reveling in his afternoons at The Happening social club for adults with disabilities in San Clemente, meeting new people, playing 3-D video games, learning to play pool — and then break down weeping, saying, “Be loyal! Be faithful! No other guys!” as he was admonished in his last life. He continues to fear that he’s in trouble, or going to jail, or headed for a psych hold with Emergency Treatment Services, threats that were once a regular part of his existence.
“I tell him he’s safe and protected, no one is taking him to ETS or to jail, that’s all in the past,” said Mukai. “I have to constantly reassure him.”
She says that he gets to decide if he wants to have other friends. “It’s very important that you know it’s your choice,” she told him.
“Is that normal?” he asked.
The family has big plans to help Morris make the most of his life. He’ll be seeing new doctors. His medication regimen will be re-evaluated. He’ll get trauma therapy and equine therapy and speech therapy, instruction on reading and writing, technology and music. He’ll get training on basic self-care such as how to properly wash his hair and body and effectively brush his teeth — his gums bleed profusely and he had five teeth removed just days before Mukai was appointed conservator.
He has bruises and bloody toes. He needs healing.
Nonna Mukai is a devout believer in God. She has spent decades wondering why Ryan was ripped away from the family that loved him and wanted him, why he had to endure such suffering.
The reason, she has concluded, is that Ryan and Diane Ramirez — the girl who died after Morris-Kerin failed to get medical help, despite explicit instructions to do so — were used by God to save the other children and adults in the Morris-Kerin home. There has to be a reason. There just has to be.
After a week in his new home, Morris is starting to make plans. He’s going to play baseball. He wants to learn guitar, and be a pastor, and learn to drive. “How come Ronald can drive and I can’t?” he asks.
When Mukai tucks him into bed at night, she plays the same lullabies she once played for his sisters. “I have so much happy,” Morris said the first night. “I love you guys.”