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Kara Zartler

Once a child reaches age 18, it is presumed that she has the ability to make decisions on her own, regardless of her abilities. At this point, many parents of children with special needs who cannot live independently go to court to become the child's legal guardians so that they can continue to make important medical and financial decisions on the child’s behalf.

Normally, guardianship hearings are something of a formality for parents.  But this was not the case for Texas parents Christy and Mark Zartler when they sought to become guardians of their severely autistic daughter, Kara.  Mark’s legal fitness to be a guardian was in doubt because he had resorted to using marijuana, which is illegal in Texas, to quell Kara’s self-injurious behavior.

Kara is unable to speak and suffers from prolonged fits of self-abuse.  On a good day, she will strike herself only 1,000 times, and she has broken her own bones and caused brain damage.  Anti-psychotic drugs that have been prescribed put Kara into a catatonic state. 

Then, seven years ago, a neighbor suggested marijuana.  Mark tried it and Kara immediately stopped hitting herself and took an interest in her surroundings.  “Since then,” reports the Dallas Morning News, “the Zartlers have found marijuana to be the only drug that works for Kara every time.” Now Mark uses a marijuana vapor machine as needed to control Kara’s self-abuse.   

Child Protective Services investigated and concluded that Mark could be guilty of physical abuse for giving Kara illegal marijuana. Under state law, giving a child an illegal drug can constitute physical abuse. The question for the guardianship judge was whether Mark was nevertheless fit to be Kara’s guardian.  The stakes were potentially high: If anything were to happen to Christy, Kara could become a ward of the state. The Zartler’s lawyer warned them that they could lose.

After a hearing (during which Kara fell asleep), Judge Brenda Hull Thompson ruled that both Mark and Christy were qualified to be guardians of Kara.

“We’re not criminals,” Christy Zartler told a reporter after the hearing, “and it makes me feel uneasy that the medication that helps her the best, that has the safest profile medically, is illegal.”

For a link to the Dallas Morning News article, which includes the Zartlers’ video of Kara being administered marijuana, click here.

For an ABA Journal article on the case, click here.