Nearly one in 10 children in the United States are at risk of being removed from their home by a child welfare agency simply because their parent has a disability.
In October, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of five parents with disabilities who had their children removed by New York's Administration for Children's Services, alleging widespread discrimination. What happened to these families is not unique or uncommon; rather, their tragic experiences are part of a national phenomenon: Parents with disabilities are disproportionately involved with the child welfare system and once involved are more likely than non-disabled parents to have their parental rights terminated.
For more than four years, Amy Fabbrini and Eric Ziegler have been fighting with the state of Oregon to regain custody of their sons, Christopher and Hunter. Both Fabbrini and Zeigler have intellectual disabilities. "I tend to learn a little slower than others but it in no way affects my abilities to safely care for my kids and has no effect on my day-to-day living," Fabbrini says.
Christopher was removed by Child Protective Services in September of 2013 when he was only four days old, after Fabbrini's family contacted the agency, concerned for Fabbrini and Ziegler's ability to care for the baby. In February of 2017, CPS removed Hunter, when he was only two days old, directly from the hospital. According to Fabbrini, "they have been in the system ever since."
Since their initial involvement with CPS in September of 2013, the couple has enrolled in several parenting classes. "[CPS] said if you take this parenting class or if you do this course or you do these steps then that will increase your chances of getting your son back. Well, here we are four years later and we still do not have our children," Fabbrini says.
The couple's quest to regain custody of their sons has persisted for four years and included many courtroom battles. As Fabbrini and Ziegler navigated these trials, they also became figures in the fight for disability rights. "Our main goal is that we want our kids back and to have a family. We also want to stand up for other families in this situation and help them have a voice."
For Carrie Ann Lucas of Windsor, Colorado, these issues are both personal and professional. Lucas has mitochondrial myopathy, a type of muscular dystrophy that requires the use of a power wheelchair and ventilator assistance to breathe. She is hard of hearing and has low vision. Lucas is an attorney and has represented parents with disabilities for nearly two decades. She currently works for the state agency that oversees court-appointed attorneys.
Lucas is the mother of four children, all of whom also have disabilities. She has adopted each of them from foster care. Despite the state deeming her capable to adopt four times, Lucas has been referred to CPS on numerous occasions, and says she has "lost track" of the exact number.
One time, for example, her daughter's school filed a report with CPS because the girl's ponytail was "too tight." Other times, Lucas was reported to CPS for neglecting her children because she wanted them to be independent and autonomous, such as requiring her teenage daughter to drive her own wheelchair from the school bus to the door of her home.
Every referral to CPS increases the risk of further action, even if the report was based on senseless allegations. "If people have multiple referrals, then every single one gets investigated," Lucas says. These investigations can be traumatizing for families, especially for children who came from foster care and have long involvements with CPS, like Lucas' children.
Lucas' first negative encounter began nearly two decades ago when she set out to adopt her niece, a process that lasted 16 months. It took a judge threatening to put the CPS worker in contempt of court if she didn't immediately place the child with Lucas. Lucas says the CPS worker told the judge, "There is no way that a handicapped woman can take care of a handicapped child. We're going to be picking up the child within two weeks."
"Well, we're 18 years down the road, and she's still with me," Lucas says.
Lucas' experience motivated her to attend law school and become an attorney. "I thought, if this is happening to me, and I have a master's degree [and] I take care of other people's children all day long, what's happening to every other parent?"
Research indicates that parents with disabilities and their families are overrepresented in the child welfare system. While parents with disabilities make up only 6.2 percent of all parents in the United States, a recent study found that 19 percent of children in foster care have a parent with a disability.
Nicole Brisson of Sage Haven Associates, Inc. conducts parenting assessments of people with disabilities and provides recommendations to CPS and the courts. Brisson's intimate involvement with child welfare cases involving parents with disabilities offers her a unique perspective.
"I think that the lack of understanding of community members and stigma causes parents with disabilities to be under a microscope more so than parents without disabilities. A bump or bruise on a child of a parent with a disability who is learning to walk might warrant a call to CPS, whereas it would not if the child's parent did not have a disability," Brisson says.
Once parents with disabilities are reported to CPS, they face pervasive stereotypes that often have devastating consequences. CPS has an obligation to act, which often means hiring experts to guide them. Yet Brisson claims many experts have little to no training or experience working with people with disabilities, and are unable to adequately evaluate parents and measure progress. "Courts do not realize this, err on the side of caution, and move to terminate rights often without evidence that the parent is unfit."
Bias toward parents with disabilities transcends all disability types—physical, sensory, intellectual, and psychiatric. However, Lucas says certain segments of the disability community experience worse treatment. "I think [parents with physical disabilities] get a lot of referrals, but we don't get a lot of cases," she says, referring to the difference between doing a welfare check and opening a full-fledged investigation. "For parents with intellectual disabilities and psychiatric disabilities, referrals often turn into cases."
For Fabbrini and Ziegler, the fight is far from over. A circuit judge issued a ruling four days before Christmas that deemed the pair fit to raise Hunter, stating, "I feel the threat articulated to Hunter is fairly amorphous. ... There is no allegation that they're not able to meet his basic needs." Though they were able to take 10-month old Hunter home from foster care, they're still battling to bring four-year-old Christopher home as well.
The rights of parents with disabilities and the rights of children are not mutually exclusive, yet in ensuring the rights of children, the rights of parents with disabilities can often go by the wayside. Ensuring that disabled parents have the opportunity to raise their children and are provided support, if needed, benefits both parents and children—the onus now falls on Child Protective Services agencies to adequately protect both children and parents with disabilities.