Friday, March 20, 2015

Inching closer to equality

Sara Gordon and her daughter Dana after they were reunited.
The family provided this photo with their faces blurred
to protect their privacy.
There have been too many stories about children with disabilities who suffered abuse or murder or both at the hands of their parents.

Clearly, there are times when removing a child from his home means saving his life; the  parent has simply forfeited his right to raise his own child. But there are other times when taking a child from his parent, regardless of the government's good intentions, is utterly unjustified. That's the case here.

The newborn was taken from her mother after hospital staff alerted the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) to the mother's “mental retardation”. The grandparents, with whom the mother lives, were told that they would only receive custody of  the baby if the mother moved out of their home.

Sara Gordon (all names are pseudonyms) has mild intellectual and developmental disability, or I/DD.

A DCF caseworker arrived at the hospital and observed Sara burp Dana improperly and miss a feeding due to an inability to read an analog clock. (She was also described as“uncomfortable” changing the baby’s diaper right after childbirth.)

DCF removed Dana from Sara’s care and placed her with a foster family. Initially, DCF planned for Dana and Sara eventually to be reunited. Kim, the child's grandmother who had raised three children, had already quit her job to be a full-time help to Sara in raising Dana.

Sara visited Dana whenever DCF permitted and took advantage of every available parenting education opportunity. Nonetheless, when Dana was seven months old, DCF began arranging for Dana to be adopted by the foster family.

It took a two year long legal battle and federal government intervention for Dana to be returned to her family under the custody of her grandparents.

The Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services fired this joint rebuke at the Massachusetts DCF for violating Sara’s civil rights and practicing illegal discrimination.
“Parents have a fundamental interest in the care, custody, and management of their children and a state cannot lightly interfere with this interest. Parents with disabilities have no less of an interest in the care of their children and stereotypes and assumptions about their ability to parent cannot provide a basis for removing their children,”
Hailed as a landmark and a game-changing case by legal experts, this decision is cause for celebration in our community.

It reminds me of many parents I've encountered, deemed 100% "abled", who were grossly negligent toward their children. A kindergarten mate of one of my daughters was sent off each day, at the ripe old age of four, wearing a house-key around her neck. She crossed several streets alone to get to kindergarten and returned home to an empty house. (I began taking her home with my daughter and giving her lunch every day - never got half a thank you from her "normal" parents for that.) No authorities ever visited that home.

There was also the first-time mother I knew who fell asleep while holding her newborn in the hospital and dropped him. There was no question about her right to take her baby home with her.

Then there was me. I have no doubt I burped my first born son "improperly" because, the truth is, at that point I didn't know how to do anything properly. In fact, I was so petrified of caring for him that I delayed leaving the hospital for as long as our insurance permitted me to. In the country I resided in then, and in that era, the maximum stay was ten days. So for ten days, I stayed glued to that hospital bed!

Then, on the other hand, there was the mother with Down Syndrome whom I used to meet with her children frolicking in the local paddling pool.

A lawyer for the US National Council on Disability, a federal agency that helps lawmakers craft policies relating to disability, had this comment:
"I hope other states will notice. This isn’t unique at all. This happens to parents with disabilities all the time. And most stories don’t have a happy ending."
If this is the situation in the US, I shudder to think how often it must be happening in my own country.

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