A week before Shawn Stead’s 12th birthday, he was riding a scooter in his Garner neighborhood when a Ford F-150 truck hit him.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI), spending the first three weeks at WakeMed hospital in Raleigh unconscious. Doctors said he would likely die or be brain dead.
Shawn’s mother, Kristine Stead, said she needed hope of a better outcome.
“He said, ma’am, I don’t think you understand the severity of your son’s injuries,’” Kristine recalled the neurologist saying.
“I don’t think you understand I’m his mother and I need a third option, please. We need something else to hold on to,” she told the doctor.
Shawn defied everyone’s expectations. After 78 days at the hospital, Shawn was discharged.
He relearned to walk and talk. He’s participated in Special Olympics. And he graduated from Garner High School.
“I was like a Pokemon, leveling up higher and higher,” said Shawn, now 22.
Though Shawn made a full-recovery physically, his brain was altered in the accident. Daily life tasks are more difficult for him. He can’t drive. And as Shawn approached 18, it was clear he wouldn’t join the workforce and live independently right away.
Shawn’s mother Kristine is one of many parents in North Carolina who have sought and secured a type of guardianship over her child.
Now, there’s a growing movement challenging parents to move away from guardianship and think about other ways to support their children with disabilities.
Some experts say it’s unnecessary to obtain guardianships in many cases because young adults needs to make their own decisions in order to mature into adulthood properly. NC Health News will examine that more fully in Part 2 of this series.
But Kristine says the process has worked for her family and Shawn.
In North Carolina, there are a few types of guardianship.
A “guardian of the estate” is an adult appointed only to manage a ward’s property, estate and business affairs, according to N.C. general statute 35A. A “guardian of the person” is an adult appointed only to manage the care, custody and control of a someone the court deems “incompetent.” And a “general guardian” is someone who controls a ward’s person and estate.
A parent seeking guardianship must file a petition with the Clerk of Superior Court and for parents seeking guardianship of their children aging into adulthood, the court must find the teenager to be an “incompetent child.”
The term is legally defined in the general statute as “a minor who is at least 17 1/2 years of age and who, other than by reason of minority, lacks sufficient capacity to make or communicate important decisions concerning the child’s person, family, or property, whether the lack of capacity is due to mental illness, mental retardation, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, autism, inebriety, disease, injury, or similar cause or condition.”
A guardian ad litem is appointed to represent the ward and make sure he or she understands what is happening. The guardian ad litem also talks to the ward about rights they may wish to keep, such as the ability to vote, choose their own religion or pick friends.
This can be helpful for some families, like the Rainears of Raleigh. Their 18-year-old son Gaven has autism and Asperger’s syndrome. While Gaven has a pretty large vocabulary, he’s soft spoken and doesn’t always tell people what he wants.
“We didn’t have any idea he would like to have the ability to pick his own religion,” his father Russell Rainear said. “I’m fine with it. You pick your religion, friends and who you vote for, absolutely. But I wouldn’t have thought of any of those things had [the guardian ad litem] not talked to him about it.”