She said the investigations dated back to her first efforts to adopt Heather, her biological niece, in 1999, after the girl was placed in foster care. At one point in a long procedural struggle, a social worker told a judge that ‘‘there was no way that handicapped woman could care for that handicapped child.’’
‘‘We are nearly 13 years later, and Heather is still doing very well,’’ Lucas wrote.
As a lawyer, Lucas has represented many other parents with disabilities.
‘‘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,’’ Lucas said. ‘‘When families do need intervention, it is often because the services they need are not available outside a punitive social services case.’’
The lead author of the new report, disability-rights lawyer Robyn Powell, says her goal was to challenge presumptions that disabled people can’t be effective parents.
‘‘Of course there are going to be some parents with disabilities who would be lousy parents — that’s the same with parents without disabilities,’’ she said. ‘‘If there is neglect, is it due to the disability? And can it be rectified by providing the necessary support?’’
Ella Callow, a lawyer with the National Center for Parents with Disabilities and their Families, said the report raises fundamental questions about America’s social priorities — given that state and federal laws value both the well-being of children and the rights of disabled people. The ultimate goal, she said, would be to promote both values by expanding support for disabled parents.
‘‘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,’’ Callow 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.’’
Callow, who is based in Berkeley, Calif., said child welfare agencies need to provide more funding and specialized training with the aim of improving services for disabled parents.
‘‘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.’’
Schagrin, the Maryland child-welfare official, said she found parts of the report troubling because they seemed to suggest children were sometimes removed from their families only on account of parental disabilities.
‘‘That’s not why they are taken away,’’ she said. ‘‘They are taken away because the disability has continued to the point where there’s an episode of maltreatment or neglect.’’
She said one recourse is to find members of the extended family — or other types of support — to help a parent with psychiatric or intellectual disabilities care for a child. But she said this approach could be taken too far, for example if a mother with intellectual disabilities was placed in a group home with other disabled parents.
‘‘What kind of way is that for a child to live — being raised by a shift of caregivers in a mom-and-child group home?’’ she asked. ‘‘Is that really better than an open-adoption agreement?’’
Andrea Bartolo, a senior consultant at the Child Welfare League of America, said there is no question that some disabled parents encounter discrimination in the child welfare system, ‘‘sometimes inadvertently, sometimes very overtly.’’
Under current practices, Bartolo said, an expert assessment of a child’s home life and the possible provision of services to the disabled parents might occur only after the child has been removed and ‘‘the damage has been done.’’ Going forward, she hopes child-welfare agencies will try harder to provide support before a problem worsens, potentially reducing the need for foster-care placements.
The report praises a few states — including Idaho, Kansas and California — for modifying child-custody laws to the benefit of disabled parents. It urges Congress to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act to add protections for parents, and it calls on state lawmakers to eliminate disability as a distinct ground for terminating parental rights.
Christine Waters, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, based in Syracuse, worked with colleagues in 2008-09 in a bid to change the state law specifying that parental rights can be terminated if a parent has psychiatric problems or is intellectually impaired. Some legislators expressed support, Waters said, but the effort ultimately failed.Continued...