‘‘Everything would look like it was going fine ... and then there would be some well-publicized, awful incident where someone who had a mental illness — without support — did something shocking and horrible, and a child was seriously harmed or died and we'd be back to square one,’’ Waters said.
Waters said some child-welfare officials resisted any change, wary of being held responsible if something went wrong.
The assumption that people with disabilities can’t parent ‘‘is bad for society and heartbreaking for families,’’ Waters said. ‘‘The easy thing is to terminate the parental rights. We need to do the right thing, not the easy thing.’’
Disabled parents whose parenting ability comes into question often are placed at a disadvantage by parenting assessments that are inappropriate or unfair, the report says. It calls for better research to improve assessment standards and gain more knowledge about how various disabilities affect the ability to be an effective parent.
One topic worth further study, it said, is ‘‘parentification’’ — the phenomenon in which children of disabled parents take on various caregiving responsibilities, even at a young age.
In Arlington Heights, Ill., Jenn Thomas, a 36-year-old mom who has cerebral palsy, says her 8-year-old twins occasionally complain about having to do a few extra chores around the house to help her.
Her daughter, Abigail, nods and smiles upon hearing this, but says for the most part, their lives are ‘‘kind of normal.’’ For her, having a mom with a disability is just how it is, she says, shrugging.
Sometimes, they ride on the chair with her — especially son Noah because he, like his father, D.J., is a ‘‘little person,’’ the term used by the family and others for someone genetically predisposed to having unusually short stature. When activities are farther away, the couple has created a support network to help when D.J. is working. He drives, but Jenn does not.
‘‘I want them to enjoy activities and not be limited because I am limited,’’ she says. So she coordinates with neighbors to help get the kids to swimming, cello lessons or basketball practice. Or she arranges for ‘‘paratransit,’’ a bus service for riders with disabilities and their families.
Friends also helped redesign their kitchen to make it more accessible.
The new report stresses that improved networks of support for disabled parents — encompassing transportation, housing, health care, and outside intervention when appropriate — should be welcomed, and not viewed as evidence that the parents on their own are incapable.
When children do face removal from their disabled parents, those parents may encounter barriers to meaningful participation in their legal cases, the report says. For example, financially struggling parents may have to rely on a court-appointed attorney with no special knowledge about the effects of disability.
Kaney O'Neill of Des Plaines, Ill., a quadriplegic Navy veteran, endured an 18-month legal battle to keep custody of her young son. Her ex-boyfriend filed for custody in 2009, when the boy was 10 weeks old, alleging that O'Neill was ‘‘not a fit and proper person’’ to care for the child because of her disability.
Refuting the allegation, with legal help from Ella Callow, Kaney demonstrated how she had prepared for motherhood by working with an occupational therapy program, adapting her house, securing specialized baby-care equipment, and using personal assistants to help her as needed.
‘‘I lived in fear every single day that my son would be taken away from me,’’ said O'Neill, 36. ‘‘In a lot of ways it made me a better mother because I felt that I had a lot to prove.’’
She says her son, who taught himself to climb up his mother’s wheel chair into her lap, is now going to preschool twice a week and is thriving.
‘‘If you are a parent with a disability, you don’t have a role model — you have to figure out how you’re going to be a mother and overcome challenges,’’ she said.
For disabled women who either cannot bear children or choose not to, the possible option of adoption often can be complicated. Some foreign countries, notably China, rule out disabled people as potential adoptive parents.
Elizabeth Pazdral of Davis, Calif., who wears a brace and uses crutches to walk because of cerebral palsy, said she encountered discrimination several years ago when she and her husband sought to adopt a child. She said one local adoption agency billed her an advance fee of $3,400, then advised that there were ‘‘serious reservations’’ about her ability to be a parent.Continued...