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A controversial plan would make guardianship automatic for some Arizonans when they turn 18

For many young people, the transition to adulthood can be complicated. Just what does it mean to be a grown up? It’s more than a number — and yet, legally, it all magically changes when a person turns 18. This can be a challenge for any parent.

But for families of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, it’s often even tougher to determine who is ready to be on their own in the world — and who may never be.

For the past several years, Arizona legislators have considered measures that would increase autonomy for many people with disabilities. But some advocates say a bill under consideration this spring would move in the opposite direction.

Justine Wadsack, a freshman Republican senator from Tucson, has introduced a measure that would make guardianship automatic when a person receiving state services for developmental disabilities turns 18.

Justine Wadsack
Justine Wadsack in a Senate committee meeting at the Arizona State Capitol on Feb. 15, 2023

“It should be assumed that a parent who raised their child from the age of birth to 17 and 364 days is going to want to continue moving forward caring for that child,” Wadsack said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in February

She explained that this measure is meant for children like her daughter, who she said has the cognitive abilities of a three month old. But abilities vary greatly among people with developmental disabilities, which is why the law currently calls for the courts to consider guardianship on a case-by-case basis.

Some parents who’ve gone through the process of getting guardianship over their kids say making it automatic at age 18 is not the right approach.

Amanda Steele is a longtime advocate for people with disabilities and was recently elected to the Tempe Union High School District governing board.

“So, when my son was 12 years old, I walked in to his 12-year check-up, and I was informed by his pediatrician that it’s something that I should definitely consider,” she said. “I did the following classes and guidelines and everything went through — it was the hardest, saddest, scariest decision because I was taking rights that I didn’t feel right about, but I thought I was doing it for my son, and for his best interest.”

Steele’s son Jordan Wright is almost 23 now. He has autism and intellectual disability. She also describes him as low-verbal. But despite the fact that he struggles with communication and needs extra support, Wright has a life — including a girlfriend of two years — and more things he would like to do.

Wright and Steele both came by KJZZ's studio recently to talk about their experience. Steele says she’s trying to help Jordan understand the rights he’s lost, and petition a judge to get some of them back — including his right to vote.

Wadsack told KJZZ News last week that her proposal, Senate Bill 1411, is likely to see some amendments that will address the concerns of people like Steele and Wright. The measure is awaiting debate in the Senate.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.