Sunday, April 18, 2010

Greene vs. Sonoma County

In this past Friday's edition of the news roundup I wrote about the memorandum that President Obama signed directing the Department of Health and Human Services to make rules that make "clear that designated visitors, including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such has durable powers of attorney and health care proxies) should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy. You should also provide that participating hospitals may not deny visitation privileges on the basis of race, color national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability."

A great deal of press associated with this memorandum related to a legal case brought by Janice Langbehn, who, along with her children, were denied access to her dying partner while she was in a Florida hospital. Today I've been reading a lot about Green vs. Sonoma County (see here or here for two interesting commentaries). Here is a brief description borrowed from the NCLR website:

Clay and his partner of 20 years, Harold, lived in California. Clay and Harold made diligent efforts to protect their legal rights, and had their legal paperwork in place—wills, powers of attorney, and medical directives, all naming each other. Harold was 88 years old and in frail medical condition, but still living at home with Clay, 77, who was in good health. 
One evening, Harold fell down the front steps of their home and was taken to the hospital. Based on their medical directives alone, Clay should have been consulted in Harold’s care from the first moment. Tragically, county and health care workers instead refused to allow Clay to see Harold in the hospital. The county then ultimately went one step further by isolating the couple from each other, placing the men in separate nursing homes. 
Ignoring Clay’s significant role in Harold’s life, the county continued to treat Harold like he had no family and went to court seeking the power to make financial decisions on his behalf. Outrageously, the county represented to the judge that Clay was merely Harold’s “roommate.” The court denied their efforts, but did grant the county limited access to one of Harold’s bank accounts to pay for his care. 
What happened next is even more chilling: without authority, without determining the value of Clay and Harold’s possessions accumulated over the course of their 20 years together or making any effort to determine which items belonged to whom, the county took everything Harold and Clay owned and auctioned off all of their belongings. Adding further insult to grave injury, the county removed Clay from his home and confined him to a nursing home against his will. The county workers then terminated Clay and Harold's lease and surrendered the home they had shared for many years to the landlord. 
Three months after he was hospitalized, Harold died in the nursing home. Because of the county’s actions, Clay missed the final months he should have had with his partner of 20 years. Compounding this tragedy, Clay has literally nothing left of the home he had shared with Harold or the life he was living up until the day that Harold fell, because he has been unable to recover any of his property. The only memento Clay has is a photo album that Harold painstakingly put together for Clay during the last three months of his life. 
With the help of a dedicated and persistent court-appointed attorney, Anne Dennis of Santa Rosa, Clay was finally released from the nursing home. Ms. Dennis, along with Stephen O'Neill and Margaret Flynn of Tarkington, O'Neill, Barrack & Chong, now represent Clay in a lawsuit against the county, the auction company, and the nursing home, with technical assistance from NCLR. A trial date has been set for July 16, 2010 in the Superior Court for the County of Sonoma.
It's difficult for me to string together words to describe what I feel when reading about this. This isn't because a lack of words--or anger--but because there isn't much more in my mind beyond the horror of bearing wittiness to such unrelenting cruelty.

As I have been learning in my recent explorations into the nature of cruelty and how it has become woven nearly invisibly into the tapestry of our human experience, I think about the person and their experience. I'm thinking a lot this afternoon about Clay and how many people showed great cruelty by not thinking of his experience. I wonder what the voters of California were thinking when they voted for California Proposition 8? Where they thinking about people like Clay and Harold? Probably not as our modern public discourse has moved away from considering individual experiences and moved toward easily digestible slogans. I wonder what staff at the nursing homes, the hospitals,  or decision makers at the county level were thinking of? Where they thinking of the very real humans who were experiencing great pain and cruelty? Again, I'm guessing not.

I hope those of you who read about his story don't make that same mistake. I hope you think of the person's experience first. Always think of the person first. It can guide us toward a place of compassion and slowly help us each dismantle the cruelty we ignore or don't notice on a daily basis.


  1. I was going to post this story to my blog as well, but was only able to find a single source for the story after a pretty intensive search, and that source was the NCLR. I'd definitely like to know more. It's obviously an outrage and several commentators have suggested contacting media outlets demanding they investigate.

  2. There wasn't a whole lot of news out there about the case. I seems that it's just starting to filter out to the public: I hope the situation changes quickly and lots of people are talking about it.

  3. Hi Jason. I found your blog while researching this case. I thought I'd pass along the fact that you can find a PDF of the suit that Clay has filed here []. It appears that the defendants in the case not only did everything you've noted here, but they sold the couple's personal goods (supposed to be worth several $100Ks) *for their OWN benefit*! Evil on several counts, it seems...

  4. This issue was so much more than the greed driven selling off of a couple's goods. If the allegations are to be believed, this couple also suffered collusion, coercion, and elder abuse at the hands of Sonoma County personnel and their contracted associates during a very fragile time of this couple's lives.

    What happened to both of these individuals was unconscionable despite the possibility of domestic violence which was not pursued by the District Attorney due to insufficient evidence. And, for reasons yet to be made clear, there was no one available to stop the madness.

    I truly hope this issue does not get lost in "spin" and results in not only just vindication for Clay Greene but exposure and repair of a broken system designed to protect all indviduals who have become too fragile to protect themselves.

    These recent articles may be of interest:
    Press Democrat -
    The New York Times -

    Godspeed to Clay Greene's legal team!

  5. Dr. Evan,
    Thank you for drawing attention to this on-going scandal. The implications of Greene vs. Sonoma County go far beyond questions of 'Gay' relationships or even Prop 8, but point to violations of bedrock principles of civil rights and Habeas Corpus. We are two seniors who live in Sonoma County, just down the road from where this all took place. For our take on it, may we refer you to our site, here:
    peace, MandT in Sonoma County