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Report Finds that State and Federal Government Discriminate Against Parents with Disabilities
October 16, 2012 | David Heymsfeld, AAPD Policy Advisor
A recent comprehensive report by the National Council on Disability concludes there is “persistent, systemic, and pervasive discrimination” against people with disabilities who choose to become parents.
The National Council on Disability is an independent federal agency charged with making recommendations to the President and the Congress to enhance the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities and their families.
The discrimination found by the Council affects large numbers of parents. There now are at least 4.1 million parents with disabilities in the United States. The Council finds that parents with disabilities are “the only distinct community of Americans who must struggle to retain custody of their children.”
An area of discrimination highlighted by the report is custody proceedings in which children are frequently taken away from parents on the basis of a parent’s disability, without adequate consideration of whether the disability is creating harm to the child, which cannot be alleviated by adaptive measures. The report concludes that “parents with disabilities and their children are overly and often inappropriately referred to child welfare services and, once involved, are often permanently separated at disproportionately high rates.”
The report contains many examples of unfair treatment of parents with disabilities. A compelling case is that of Tiffany Calio, a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy. After a long custody battle, Tiffany’s two children were taken from her and adopted by two separate families, despite assurances that they would remain together.
A key piece of evidence used to claim that Tiffany was not a fit parent was a video showing how long it took her to diaper a child. Reliance on this evidence ignored Tiffany’s adaptive care of encouraging her baby to be patient, and expert testimony that infants learn to hold still during long diapering sessions when parents support their patience.
The adverse effects of discrimination are not limited to situations in which there are proceedings to deprive a parent of custody. Many parents with disabilities live in fear that their contacts with neighbors or health professionals will result in a complaint to a family agency that will initiate custody proceedings. The report tells of Jennifer, a wheelchair user and mother of three, who reports that she is always afraid to ask for help. She worries that someone may conclude that she is unable to adequately care for her children and report her to child protective services. Kathryn, a new mother who is a wheelchair user and little person, reported that because of her concern that her daughter’s pediatrician will question her ability to parent, she always takes a nondisabled person with her to appointments.
The Council concludes that a major cause of discrimination in custody cases is that in many States the law specifies disability as a ground for terminating parental rights. While in theory it should have to be shown that the disability is resulting in harm to the child, the Council finds that in practice “this is not the reality.” The Council recommends that States amend their laws to eliminate disability as a ground for termination of parental rights.
The NCD Report is not limited to custody problems, but discusses many other areas in which the legal system discriminates against parents with disabilities. These include adoption, access to assisted reproductive technologies, personal assistance services to help in parenting activities, accessible housing and transit, social service support focusing on parenting, and access to skilled legal assistance in custody and other family law proceedings. The report includes numerous recommendations for changes in law and policy to end discrimination in these areas.
Overall, the NCD Report presents a comprehensive and compelling picture of the discrimination faced by parents with disabilities, as well as recommendations for changes in law and policy. The report will be a primary source for advocates and policy makers who want to protect the civil rights of parents with disabilities.