A recent report issued by the National Council on Disability (NCD) provided shocking statistics and case studies that show the gross injustice many parents with disabilities face, often leaving the parents without custody of their own biological children. The report shows that there are barriers and bias that has child protective services removing children from the homes of parents who could easily be offered available supportive services instead.
Not long ago, a blind couple with a newborn made national news. Nurses at the hospital reported the new mother to child protective services after she had difficulty breastfeeding her newborn, a problem many first-time mothers without disabilities face. The couple had their newborn taken from the hospital, and they fought for 57 days to regain the right to be parents. During that time, they were only permitted to visit with their baby twice a week, for an hour each visit, and under the watchful eye of the foster parent.
For every case that makes the news, hundreds more go unnoticed. The new NCD report titled “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children” has 445 pages that make one point very clear: the legal system is not protecting the rights of disabled parents, and it is often in direct conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
“Parents with disabilities continue to be the only distinct community that has to fight to retain—and sometimes gain—custody of their own children,” said autism-rights activist Ari Ne’eman, a member of the council. “The need to correct this unfair bias could not be more urgent or clear.”
Often, these children are taken away from their parents because of failed parenting assessments that place those with disabilities at a disadvantage. Other times, children are taken from their parents before support services are even considered. Once the children are out of the home, it becomes a version of “the damage is done” scenario, where the child permanently stays with a family member rather than taking steps to allow the child to return home.
“I have had parents with paralysis be threatened with removal of their children, deaf parents punished for using sign language with their hearing children, and blind parents told that a social worker can’t possibly fathom how they could parent a newborn,” Carrie Ann Lucas, a lawyer who represents parents with disabilities, said. “When families do need intervention, it is often because the services they need are not available outside a punitive social services case.”
Lucas knows first hand what it feels like to be a parent with disabilities facing scrutiny from government social workers. In addition to being an attorney, she is a single mother with four adopted children, all who have disabilities. She has raised them successfully, despite using a power wheelchair and ventilator due to a form of muscular dystrophy.
“If we really believe that families are the key unit on which society is built, then we have to enable these families to be healthy and functioning, even at public expense,” Ella Callow, a lawyer with the National Center for Parents with Disabilities and Their Families, said. “We know foster care isn’t a good place for children to be—they do better with their own parents, at their own home.”
“Child welfare is so incredibly underfunded, and the workers are so incredibly overwhelmed, their attitude is, ‘Really, you want my attention on this?'” Callow said. “There’s a tendency to think these families aren’t the same as our families. But these children, when they lose their families, have the same type of grief.”