Ryan Morris with his aunt Monica Mukai during a Christmas tree lightening in San Juan Capistrano. (Photo courtesy of Monica Mukai)
So very much has happened in the six years since Ryan Morris’ biological relatives sought to become his legal guardians.
Morris’ adoptive mother and father in Murrieta were charged with lewd conduct with dependent adults “with the intent of arousing, appealing to, and gratifying the lust, passions, and sexual desires” of themselves and their charges, as well as with neglect contributing to the death of a disabled child in their care. (That eliminated the adoptive mom’s request to be re-appointed Morris’s legal guardian.)
The court removed Morris’ husband from the legal guardian job — his adoptive mother allowed him to marry a man nearly twice his age, despite the fact that Morris has the intellectual ability of a kindergartener and mistook the wedding for a baptism — and found that the husband was abusive toward Morris and kept him in a volatile household. (Morris’ publicly financed attorneys asked the appeals court to return Morris to the husband’s home anyway — a request the court denied.)
Then the Riverside County Public Guardian’s office was appointed as Morris’ “temporary” legal guardian, moving him to a low-stress, neutral home where he could finally start visiting with his biological family from Orange County without fear of being punished. (Both his adoptive mother and husband talked down his bio family and threatened to take away privileges — or send him to the psych ward — when he expressed desire to see or talk to them, according to court documents.)
Visits with Morris are professionally monitored and going well, according to documents filed with the court. Morris sometimes panics about being punished for being with his biological family, but his relatives are adept at reminding him he’s safe, helping him breathe and talking him down. They help him brush his teeth, learn to bend his knees when walking up stairs, and button his own shirt.
But this “temporary” public guardianship has stretched on for years. Morris’ biological family has clashed with officials there, objecting to constraints on visitation, fearing Morris is being isolated, even filing a court declaration from a social worker saying he was misled about the bio family by the Public Guardian’s office.
Finally, on Thursday, Sept. 1, the court began hearing his biological aunt Monica Mukai’s request to appoint her as his conservator. It was filed in 2016. The bio family has been fighting Morris’ removal from their fold for most of his life, and a well-appointed bedroom has been awaiting him in San Juan Capistrano’s quaint Los Rios Street Historic District for years.
The next court date is Oct. 3, when a trial date is expected to be set.
“This case is old,” said Riverside Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Jackson, “and we need resolution.”
The plight of Britney Spears focused attention on the abuses that can be attendant to conservatorships, California’s official parlance for legal guardianships for the disabled. The nettlesome issues were probed in a three-part series, “Twins, Divided,” by the Southern California News Group in 2017.
But the outstanding question remains: What does Morris want?
Morris is easily influenced and subject to manipulation, court proceedings have found.
When he visits with the bio family, he becomes upset when it’s time to leave and says he wants to stay. But his county-appointed attorneys say Morris opposes having anyone in his bio family as conservator, and wants his husband — who was removed for the aforementioned abusive behavior — for that job.
That husband, Sean Spicer, opposes Mukai as legal guardian as well.
To clear up confusion, the bio family has been pushing to get Morris into the courtroom to tell the judge directly what he wants, but his attorneys said Morris doesn’t want to come.
The bio family does not believe them. “Ryan’s lawyers knew that Sean was abusing him for years and did nothing about it. They knew that a doctor and a judge determined that Ryan was incapable of entering into marriage and maintaining marriage, and they did nothing about it. I don’t trust anything they say,” said Charles S. Krolikowski of Newmeyer & Dillion LLP, attorney for Morris’s identical twin brother, Ronald Moore.
And then there’s the Public Guardian, which has the job temporarily, saying it takes on conservatorships only as a last resort, but there are clearly others who want to volunteer for the job. But the office fears that a trial on Mukai’s request for conservatorship will turn into an “attack” on how the Public Guardian’s office has handled Morris’ case, putting the Public Guardian itself on trial.
Mukai’s critique of the office has, indeed, been withering. But after decades of astonishing acts by the state and its representatives — from deciding that Morris was too disabled to be cared for by his own family, to approving his adoption by Michelle Morris, a woman who cut off all contact with them and now stands accused of abuse, to placing more and more severely disabled children in Michelle Morris’ care despite the Orange County Regional Center asserting she suffered from Munchausen by proxy (a behavior disorder in which caretakers exaggerate children’s health problems and subject them to unnecessary or inappropriate medical treatment), to officials looking past reports of sexual abuse in her home and taping children to wheelchairs and putting wheelchair-bound children into closets until, finally, Michelle Morris was charged with neglect in the case of a girl in her care who died — perhaps some criticism is understandable?
This reporter has been following this case for nearly 20 years. The family has learned that it must fight. And there’s some evidence that the Public Guardian’s office has not been completely neutral here.
A social worker asked to provide “relationship building services” among the parties in this case said he was never given the judge’s order removing Spicer or other pertinent background information. He was “fed” misinformation that led him to believe the culprits in this drama were the biological family members, and he blasted Riverside County officials for manipulation and bias in a court declaration.
“I came to the conclusion that I was being used as a pawn by the Public Guardian’s Office to render findings and recommendations without having all of the information I needed to do so,” it said.
The judge did not seem too receptive to the Public Guardian’s fear of criticism at trial, so we’ll see how that unfolds. Officials there may need to toughen up a bit.
Mukai, meanwhile, is excited for her nephew’s future, and she hopes to “set him free.”
“Ryan Morris has voiced a desire to attend college, get help with his dental and medical needs, and spend multiple nights at my residence, where he is provided appealing educational and social opportunities in a very integrative manner with his family and the community at large,” she said in a declaration to the court.
“Ryan’s cries have tragically fallen on deaf ears by the county representatives and agencies for too long. Instead Ryan’s former conservators — Sean Spicer and Michelle Morris — have utilized Ryan’s court appointed attorneys and county representatives, including County Counsel, to keep a wedge between Ryan and his biological family, essentially preventing us from assisting him accomplish these goals….
“I respectfully request that this court allow Ryan to return to Orange County with his biological family where, as the proposed successor conservator, I will work with the Regional Center of Orange County to ‘select the least restrictive appropriate residence….’ I understand very clearly that it would be my duty by law to secure housing, treatment, services, and opportunities that will assist him … to develop maximum self-reliance and independence.”
It can be argued that, tragically, officials got the Ryan Morris case wrong at just about every turn. Will this time be any different?