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Lawyer Says Court Ruling on Retarded Parents ‘Unenlightened’

December 1, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court’s rejection of a mentally retarded couple’s attempt to regain the 3-year-old son taken from them is being portrayed as ″unenlightened″ by a lawyer involved in the case.

The court, without comment Monday, let stand rulings that Paul and Patti Ensign were unfit parents even though they loved their son and never intentionally neglected him.

Lawyers for the couple had argued that state court rulings against the Ensigns demonstrate ″inherent prejudice against persons with mental retardation.″

Barbara Heathfield, a Chicago lawyer who helped represent the Ensigns, said Monday she was shaken by the legal system’s treatment of the couple.

″We concede that the Ensigns are not model parents. But there should have been some consideration, in an enlightened society, of those actions that could be taken without having to terminate all parental rights,″ she said.

Paul Ensign Jr. was born Nov. 28, 1984. The Ensigns have not seen him since December 1985, when he was placed in the custody of the state Department of Children and Family Services.

The Ensigns’ parental rights were terminated then, and state officials were empowered to consent to Paul Jr.’s adoption. Monday’s action will clear the way for adoption of the child, who has been living in a foster home.

Questions about the Ensigns’ ability to care for their son were raised when he was 11 or 12 days old when Paul Jr. fell from a plastic seat held by his father outside a restaurant in Sullivan, Ill., where the couple then lived.

Someone who saw the accident notified the Moultrie County nurse, who examined Paul Jr. and later sent him to a doctor for a further check-up. He had not been harmed.

At the 1985 hearing, witnesses testified that the Ensigns were loving parents but could not care for Paul Jr. without help.

A psychologist testified that Ensign has an IQ of 43 and is functioning at a 7-year-old’s level. Mrs. Ensign has an IQ of 36, the psychologist said.

The couple’s apartment was found generally to be sanitary, and no signs of abuse were ever observed on Paul Jr., who suffers from an undersized brain.

A state appeals court upheld the termination of the Ensigns’ parental rights.

Noting that the couple ″have a great amount of love and affection″ for Paul Jr., the appeals court said, ″We are mindful of the fact that all persons, including the retarded, have the right to marry, establish a home and raise a family, and that these rights are of deep human importance and should not be terminated lightly.″

But it added, ″The evidence in this case has conclusively demonstrated that due to severe mental impairment, (the Ensigns) are unable to discharge their parental responsibilities.″

In other actions Monday, the high court:

-Agreed to decide in a case from New York City whether local governments may regulate the quality of cable television signals. The Federal Communications Commission opposes such local regulation, saying it could hinder the cable industry’s growth.

-Agreed to consider letting the Reagan administration stop regulating some natural gas prices, a move government lawyers say could save consumers $100 million a year.

-Were urged during arguments in a Mississippi case to rule that the Constitution’s ban on ″excessive fines″ applies not only to criminal cases but to the damages awarded in non-criminal, personal injury lawsuits as well. The court’s decision is expected by July.

-Heard lawyers representing the Reagan administration and white police officers in New York City argue in favor of making it easier to file lawsuits attacking affirmative action plans benefiting minorities.

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