From the Delivery Room to the Courtroom: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities

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By: Robyn M. Powell, Esq.

The right to raise a family is undoubtedly one of the rights most cherished by Americans.  The United States Supreme Court has avowed continuously and with conviction that parents’ rights to the care and custody of their children are protected under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.  Parental rights have long been held as fundamental, beginning with the seminal 1923 decision in Meyer v. Nebraska,[1] in which the Supreme Court held that parents have the due process right to see to the education of their children together with the duty to give children a suitable education.  Two years after Meyer, the Supreme Court, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, ruled that parents have the liberty “to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”[2]  In this landmark case, the Supreme Court found, “The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”[3]  Subsequent decisions have further defined the contours of the law’s protections of parental rights.[4]

Despite recognition of the fundamental right to raise a family, people with disabilities continue to encounter pervasive and systemic discrimination when seeking to create and maintain families.  In 2012, the National Council on Disability (“NCD”), an independent federal agency, released its groundbreaking report, Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children (hereinafter “Rocking the Cradle”).[5]  Rocking the Cradle is a comprehensive policy study that explores the pervasive prejudices faced by parents with disabilities. The report exposes the disparate treatment often encountered by parents with disabilities and their children within the legal and social services systems and offers draft model state and federal statutory language to correct the discrimination faced by parents with disabilities throughout the United States.

This article, an adaption of the Rocking the Cradle report, provides readers with an understanding of this largely overlooked civil rights issue inherent in the discrimination faced by parents with disabilities, focusing on the legal and policy considerations.  The first section provides a historical context on the parenting rights of people with disabilities.  The following sections examine the four key areas wherein parents and prospective parents with disabilities face discrimination: child welfare, family law, adoption, and assisted reproductive technologies.  Finally, the article concludes with a discussion on what Massachusetts is doing to remedy this unjust phenomenon and provides a call to action to Massachusetts advocates and policymakers.


History of Parenting Rights in the Disability Community

The desire to raise a family crosses all cultural, physical, and political boundaries.  However, for people with disabilities, this inherent desire has long been forestalled by societal bias.  This opposition has deep and disturbing roots.

To begin with, the eugenics movement, during which more than 30 states legalized involuntary sterilization, characterized the first half of the 20th century.[6]  This legislative trend was premised on the notion that people with disabilities were “socially inadequate” and burdensome to society.[7]  Because of these state statutes, more than 65,000 Americans had been involuntarily sterilized by 1970.[8]  Many of these individuals were sterilized because of an intellectual or psychiatric disability or belonged to socially disadvantaged groups.

In 1927, the United States Supreme Court sanctioned this practice.  In his notorious decision upholding the constitutionality of Virginia’s law requiring the involuntary sterilization of people with disabilities, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared,

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.[9]

Disgracefully, this Supreme Court decision has yet to be overruled.  In fact, in 1995, the Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari of a woman with an intellectual disability challenging Pennsylvania’s involuntary sterilization statute.[10]  Bell was cited by a federal appeals court as recently as 2001, in Vaughn v. Ruoff.[11]  In this case, the plaintiff had a “mild” intellectual disability and both of her children were removed by the state.  Immediately following the birth of her second child, the social worker told the mother that if she agreed to be sterilized, her chances of regaining custody of her children would improve.  The mother agreed to sterilization, but approximately three months later, the state informed her that it would recommend termination of parental rights.  The district court found that the plaintiff had a protected liberty interest in the 14th Amendment and that the social worker’s conduct violated her due process rights.  The U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment for the Eighth Circuit.  However, the appeals court, citing Bell, acknowledged, “involuntary sterilization is not always unconstitutional if it is a narrowly tailored means to achieve a compelling government interest.”[12]

Even today, as we near the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), several states retain a form of involuntary sterilization law on their books.  A few even retain the original statutory language, which labels the targets of these procedures as possessing hereditary forms of “idiocy” and “imbecility,” and state that the best interests of society would be served by preventing them from procreating.[13]

In fact, there appears to be a growing trend toward sterilizing people with intellectual or psychiatric disabilities.  Locally, in the fall of 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health filed a petition to have the parents of a woman with a psychiatric disability appointed as temporary guardians in order to consent to an abortion, despite the fact that the woman had refused such a procedure, citing her religious beliefs.[14]  The court ordered that the woman’s parents be appointed as co-guardians and said she could be “coaxed, bribed, or even enticed … by ruse” into a hospital where she would be sedated and an abortion would be performed.[15]  The judge also ordered the facility that performed the abortion to sterilize the woman “to avoid this painful situation from recurring in the future.”[16]  The decision was reversed on appeal.  With regard to the sterilization order, the appeals court ruled, “No party requested this measure, none of the attendant procedural requirements has been met, and the judge appears to have simply produced the requirement out of thin air.”[17]  In overturning the order to terminate the pregnancy, the court stated, “The personal decision whether to bear or beget a child is a right so fundamental that it must be extended to all persons, including those who are incompetent.”[18]  The appropriate result of the proceedings does not erase its troubling origin – a state agency that intervened to terminate a pregnancy based on the disability of the pregnant woman, despite her objection to having an abortion.

Shamefully, the power of the eugenics ideology persists.  Today, as NCD’s Rocking the Cradle reveals, people with disabilities continue to encounter significant legal, medical, and familial resistance to their decision to become parents.[19]


Discrimination in the Child Welfare System

Parents with disabilities face multiple layers of discrimination from the moment they enter the child welfare system.  For example, in 2010, a Missouri couple had their two-day-old daughter taken into custody by the state because both parents were blind.[20]  This removal was not based on allegations of abuse, just a fear that the parents would be unable to care for their daughter.  Because the couple was presumed unfit, for nearly two months they were permitted to visit their daughter only two to three times a week, for just an hour at a time, with a foster parent monitoring.[21]  Questions arose within hours of their daughter’s birth, after awkward first attempts at breast-feeding – something many new mothers experience.  Following this incident, a nurse wrote on a chart, “The child is without proper custody, support or care due to both of parents being blind and they do not have specialized training to assist them.”  “Her words set into motion the state mechanisms intended to protect children from physical or sexual abuse, unsanitary conditions, neglect, or absence of basic needs being met.”[22]  A social worker from the state came by the mother’s hospital room and asked her a variety of questions about how they would care for their daughter.  The social worker then told the parents they would need 24-hour care for their daughter, which the parents replied they could not afford and did not need.  Nonetheless, their daughter was taken into foster care, and a 57-day battle ensued before they were finally reunited with her.[23]

Unfortunately, the experience of the above mentioned parents is not unique for parents with disabilities.  Parents with disabilities and their children are overly, and often inappropriately, referred to child welfare services and, once child welfare services become involved, are separated at disproportionately high rates.  Indeed, research reveals removal rates as high as 70 percent to 80 percent where parents have a psychiatric disability,[24]  and from 40 percent to 80 percent when the parent has an intellectual disability.[25]  Likewise, parents with physical disabilities as well as the deaf and blind communities also report extremely high rates of child removal and loss of parental rights. [26]

The reasons for this pervasive discrimination are myriad.  First, as recently as 2010, a study found that 37 states, including Massachusetts, still contain disability as grounds for terminating parental rights.[27]  These laws often rely upon antiquated and offensive terminology, vague definitions of disability, and place emphasis on a parent’s diagnosis or condition rather than on their actions and behaviors as parents.[28]  As researchers Elizabeth Lightfoot and Traci LaLiberte of the University of Minnesota note, “When a parent’s disability is explicitly included in legislation outlining the grounds for termination of parental rights, the disability can easily become the focus of a child protection case, even though the statutes do not say it can be the sole grounds for termination.”[29]

Moreover, parents with disabilities contend with the disparate impact of certain provisions of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (“ASFA”);[30] perceived limits on the application of the ADA, especially at the termination of parental rights phase;[31] bias, speculation, and the “unfit parent” standard;[32] and a lack of training in relevant systems regarding parents with disabilities.[33]


Bias in the Family Law System

Similarly, parents with disabilities who are seeking or defending custody or visitation rights often encounter a family law system that is riddled with practices that discriminate against them and lacks familiarity regarding parents with disabilities and their children.  For instance, in 2009, Kaney O’Neill, a veteran and quadriplegic mother, faced an unexpected battle when her former boyfriend filed for custody of their 10-week-old son, alleging that Kaney was “not a fit and proper person” to care for their son and that her disability “greatly limits her ability to care for the minor, or even wake up if the minor is distressed.”[34]  Refuting this allegation, Kaney demonstrated her ability to care for their son.  Indeed, she had prepared for motherhood by working with an occupational therapy program for expectant mothers and parents, adapting her house for parenting, securing adapted baby care equipment, and using personal assistants to help her as needed.[35]  Illustrating the bias that pervades the family law system, an attorney who was not affiliated with the case remarked, “Certainly, I sympathize with the mom, but assuming both parties are equal (in other respects), isn’t the child obviously better off with the father?”  This attorney, who has specialized in divorce and custody cases for more than 40 years, said that Kaney “would likely not be able to teach her son to write, paint or play ball.”  The attorney went on to comment, “What’s the effect on the child—feeling sorry for the mother and becoming the parent?”  Kaney’s battle endured for a year-and-a-half before both parties came to an agreement that gives the father visitation rights.[36]  Although she was elated with the outcome, Kaney told reporters that she was “…disappointed that the courts allow for someone to question your ability to have custody based on your disability.”[37]

Across the country, parents with disabilities encounter a patchwork quilt of state domestic relations laws.  Some state laws overtly discriminate against parents with disabilities, and many fail to protect parents from unsupported allegations that they are unfit or create a detrimental impact on their children solely based on their disability.[38]

Family courts apply the “best interest of the child” standard to determine custody and visitation matters.  Most states have developed their own list of factors to determine this standard, but the best interest analysis always allows the consideration of a parent’s “health.”[39]  All too often, a parent’s disability is classified as a “health concern” and a discredit to the parent’s ability to provide for the best interests of a child.  Because of considerable attitudinal prejudice regarding disability, the mere presence of disability is often used against the parent.  The prevalence of this type of bias and lack of cultural competence is seen throughout unpublished court documents and evaluations, which use of offensive phrases such as “afflicted,” “wheelchair bound,” “suffering” from a particular disability, and the like.[40]  Such cases frequently reflect underlying biased presumptions that it is not in a child’s best interest to live with – or in some cases even visit – a parent with a disability.

Custody and visitation decisions should be based on the best interest of the child; a parent’s status as having a disability should be irrelevant to the analysis without an evidentiary showing of a nexus between the parent’s disability and a detrimental impact on the child.


Inequity in the Adoption System

Despite a growing need for foster and adoptive parents, the foster care and adoption systems are replete with discriminatory practices that forestall prospective parents with disabilities from opening their hearts and homes to children in need.[41]  Illustrating the discrimination often encountered by prospective parents with disabilities, NCD’s Rocking the Cradle recounts Rachel and her partner’s heartbreaking story:

In 1995, when Rachel and her partner (both wheelchair users) decided to adopt, they had no idea they were embarking on a 15-year journey to become parents.  They contacted the local child welfare agency to express interest in becoming foster or adoptive parents.  They were immediately told that because of their disabilities they were not qualified.  After they worked their way “up the chain” and threatened a lawsuit, the agency finally allowed them to apply.  The couple met all the requirements and completed the necessary training.  Soon after that, a brother and sister were placed with them.  After only three months, the agency removed the foster children because their birth mother did not want them placed with a disabled couple.  The agency offered another child, who proved to be an inappropriate match.  Nearly five years later, with no communication from the agency, Rachel and her partner went through the training process again.  Despite successful completion of training a second time, they never heard from the agency.

In 2004, after Rachel’s partner started a new job that paid well, the couple decided to apply for private adoption, hoping a private agency would better engage and assist prospective parents with disabilities.  But the private adoption process was also riddled with discrimination.  In 2006, the couple applied to adopt a young girl.  After a home study and nearly two years of silence, they inquired again.  Finally, in early 2009, Rachel and her partner were allowed to meet a child.  In March 2009, the agency contacted the couple and told them that the girl’s foster parents were relinquishing her (which Rachel and her partner assumed was owing to her significant intellectual and psychiatric disabilities) and asked if they would like to become her foster parents.  They agreed and she moved into their home in April 2009.  In June 2010, 15 years after beginning their journey to become parents, Rachel and her partner adopted their daughter.  Tragically, Rachel’s partner passed away five months later.[42]

Many people with disabilities seek to form families through domestic adoption.  For some, the type of disability may make adoption the sole means by which parenting becomes possible.  Unfortunately, discriminatory practices often impede access to domestic adoption.  Many prospective parents with disabilities are categorically denied the opportunity to adopt because of their disability, while others encounter bias and speculation concerning their parenting abilities.[43]  Owing to the unspoken ranking system used among domestic adoption agencies, prospective adoptive parents with disabilities are often completely precluded from adopting or forced to wait for indefinite periods before a match is found.[44]  As stated by attorney Brenda K. DeVries, “[i]n order to place as many children as possible, no one group of prospective parents should ever be categorically excluded.”[45]

Prospective parents with disabilities encounter varied results with international adoption.[46]  Some nations have less stringent requirements, and international home studies tend to be less rigorous.  On the other hand, some countries categorically deny prospective parents with disabilities.  For instance, of the top five sending countries in 2011, three had eligibility criteria that completely or nearly precluded prospective parents with disabilities from adopting children from their countries.[47]  Moreover, prospective adoptive parents with disabilities often face barriers to accessibility and travel.  For example, some prospective parents with disabilities may need specialized equipment, personal assistance services, accessible hotels, and transportation.  This can be cost-prohibitive for some, thus precluding them from international adoption.


Barriers to Accessing Assisted Reproductive Technologies

Assisted reproductive technologies (“ART”) can allow many people to procreate who would otherwise be unable to do so.  However, many people with disabilities face significant, and sometimes insurmountable, barriers to receiving ART.  ART providers regularly engage in discriminatory practices against people with disabilities.  Moreover, the growing costs of ART, combined with the limited insurance coverage for these treatments, leave many people with disabilities, who have lower incomes and greater expenses, unable to afford the treatment.[48]

Discriminatory practices by ART providers are not surprising in light of the significant and pervasive obstacles people with disabilities encounter when accessing reproductive health care.  As discussed in the NCD report The Current State of Health Care for People with Disabilities, women with disabilities require health services related to sexuality, reproductive care, and childbearing, just as women without disabilities do.[49]  However, social misperceptions and stereotypes about disability can make it difficult for women with disabilities to obtain information, medical care, and services to ensure that their reproductive needs are met.[50]  Other barriers to reproductive health care faced by people with disabilities include inaccessible facilities; limited professional training and competency of primary care and reproductive care specialists; inadequate or no health insurance coverage for visits to specialists; poor physical access to usable and adapted or specialized examination and diagnostic equipment; and negative or discriminatory provider attitudes.[51]

Regrettably, people with disabilities often contend with stereotypes and ignorance by ART providers, as well as health care providers generally.  Likening this to the eugenics philosophy, law professor Carl H. Coleman says,

Our society has a long history of efforts to prevent people with disabilities from having children, a history in which the medical profession played an especially prominent role.  While we no longer embrace the coercive eugenics policies of the early twentieth century, the perception that some individuals with disabilities are inherently incapable of being parents remains common in our society.  Hence, there is a real danger that disability-related denials of ART will be based on ignorance or bias against people with disabilities, even more so than when physicians deny individuals with disabilities other types of medical care.[52]


What is Massachusetts Doing?

This legislative session, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on the Judiciary considered a comprehensive bill that would prohibit discrimination against parents with disabilities in family law and child welfare proceedings.  House Bill 1379, An Act Prohibiting Discrimination Against Adults with Disabilities in Family and Juvenile Court Proceedings (hereinafter “HB 1379”), was introduced by Representative Paul Heroux and co-sponsored by 15 additional legislators.  Despite significant support by the disability community, in late June, HB 1379 was sent to study, effectively killing it for the remainder of the session.

HB 1379 requires that, when a court uses a parent’s disability as a factor in a custody or visitation determination, the court must have written findings to determine whether a parent’s disability causes harm to his or her child.  This law would also require courts to determine whether the harm to the child can be alleviated by “adaptive parenting equipment” or “supportive parenting services,” which are both defined in the bill.  Moreover, HB 1379 raises the burden of proof to preponderance of the evidence for most domestic relations matters concerning parents with disabilities and to a clear and convincing standard for child welfare proceedings where a parent has a disability.

HB 1379 is consistent with current Massachusetts case law, federal and state anti-discrimination law, and a trend in state family law.  Notably, HB 1379 will not cost the state money to implement and may even save the state money by preventing unnecessary foster care placements.

HB1379 was an important step forward in ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities in Massachusetts, and the disability community urges the Commonwealth to swiftly pass it in the next legislative session.  If passed, Massachusetts will join the ranks of other states that have enacted similar laws – Idaho, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Oregon, and Washington.


Conclusion: A Call to Action to Advocates and Policymakers

As this article demonstrates, parents and prospective parents with disabilities face systemic and pervasive discrimination when exercising their fundamental right to raise families.  The legal system is not sufficiently protecting the rights of parents with disabilities and their children.  Leadership is needed within the legal community as well as by policymakers and state advocacy groups in Massachusetts.  Whether action is taken as an amendment, a regulatory change, or a new law, the need for action is timely and clear.

In Massachusetts, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Department of Children and Families, Department of Public Health, and Massachusetts Judicial Branch must take immediate action to eradicate discriminatory practices within child welfare, family law, adoption, and assisted reproductive technologies.  These agencies must swiftly revise policies and procedures that are discriminatory and amend regulations to ensure the rights of these families.  In addition, state agencies must provide training on parents with disabilities to all relevant personnel.

Action by litigators and research by legal scholars must also be undertaken to determine ADA violations that may exist in the above mentioned areas.  Unquestionably, the legal community plays an integral, and difficult, role in ensuring that these families are afforded the rights they deserve.

Although parents with disabilities are especially affected by the issues discussed here, they are not alone.  Indeed, as attorney Christopher Watkins has stated, in no community is –

 the welfare of children . . . served by breaking up families based on fear and stereotype.  If we are truly concerned about the welfare of children, we should invest more money and energy in preventive services for families rather than in parental rights termination and foster care.  Our conception of the parent or parents as individuals, standing alone, without help from the broader community, does children no service.[53]


Robyn M. Powell is an Attorney Advisor at the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency that advises the President and Congress on matters concerning people with disabilities.  Ms. Powell has dedicated her career to disability rights and has previously served as the Disability Rights Program Manager at the Equal Rights Center, as Assistant Director for Policy and Advocacy at the Disability Policy Consortium, and Staff Attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services.  While in law school, Ms. Powell interned for both the National Council on Disability and the Disability Law Center, the Massachusetts Protection & Advocacy agency.  Ms. Powell is principal author of NCD’s Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and their Children.  As a national expert on the rights of parents with disabilities, Ms. Powell frequently presents on the topic and has been interviewed by various news outlets, including NPR, BBC, ABC News, and the Associated Press.

Ms. Powell holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Work from Bridgewater State University and a Juris Doctor from Suffolk University Law School.


[1] Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, (1923).

[2] Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

[3] Id. at 535.

[4] See, Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972); Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. 816 (1977); Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246 (1978);Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).

[5] National Council on Disability, Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children (hereinafter “NCD Rocking the Cradle”) (September 2012) available at  This article is adapted from NCD’s report.

[6] Michael G. Silver, Note, Eugenics and Compulsory Sterilization Laws: Providing Redress for the Victims of a Shameful Era in United States History, 72 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 862, 864 (2004).

[7] Paul A. Lombardo, Medicine, Eugenics, and the Supreme Court: From Coercive Sterilization to Reproductive Freedom, 13 J. Contemp. Health L. & Pol’y  and Policy 1, 3 (1996).

[8] Paul A. Lombardo, Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[9] Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 208 (1927).

[10] Estate of C.W., 640 A.2d 427 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1994), cert. denied, 115 S. Ct. 1175 (1995).

[11] Vaughn v. Ruoff, 253 F.3d 1124 (8th Cir. 2001).

[12] Id. at 1129.

[13] The following states retain dangerous and offensive statutory language that authorizes a court to order the involuntary sterilization of a person with a disability: Arkansas (Ark. Code Ann. §20-49-101); Colorado (Colo. Rev. Stat. §27-10.5-130); Delaware (16 Del.C. §5712); Georgia (Ga. Code. Ann. §31-20-3); Maine (34-B M.R.S.A. §7010); North Carolina (N.C.G.S.A. §35A-1245); Oregon (O.R.S. §436.205); Utah (U.C.A. 1953 §62A-6-102); Vermont (18 V.S.A. §8705 et seq.); Virginia (Va. Code Ann. §54.1-2975 et seq.); West Virginia (W.Va. Code, §27-16-1 et seq. (uses especially offensive language regarding the best interests of society).

[14] Guardianship of Mary Moe, 960 N.E.2d 350 (Mass. App. Ct. 2012).

[15] Id. at 353.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 355.

[18] Id. at 353.

[19] Carl H. Coleman, Conceiving Harm: Disability Discrimination in Assisted Reproductive Technologies, 50 UCLA L. Rev. 17, 24 (2002).

[20] Eric Schultz, Blind Independence Couple Gets Newborn Back after 57 Days, NBC Action News (July 21, 2010),

[21] Id

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Loran B. Kundra & Leslie B. Alexander, Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings: Legal Considerations and Practical Strategies for Parents with Psychiatric Disabilities and the Practitioners Who Serve Them, 33 Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 142, 143 (2009).

[25] Elizabeth Lightfoot et al., The Inclusion of Disability as a Condition for Termination of Parental Rights, 34 Child Abuse & Neglect 928 (2010); Maurice Feldman, “Parents with Intellectual Disabilities: Implications and Interventions,” in J. Lutzker (Ed.), Handbook on Child Abuse Research and Treatment (pp. 401–420) (New York, Plenum Press: 1998).

[26] NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 92.

[27] Lightfoot et al., supra at 930.

[28] See NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at Appendix B, for a state-by-state analysis of dependency statutes and their inclusion of disability.

[29] Elizabeth Lightfoot & Traci LaLiberte, Parental Supports for Parents with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 49 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 389 (2011).

[30] See generally, NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 83 et seq.  While the goals of ASFA are laudable, the consequences can be devastating, especially for parents with disabilities and their children.  For example, ASFA’s key provision, the “15/22 rule,” requires states to file a petition for TPR if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months (even shorter time frames, defined by state law if the child is an infant), which is often challenging for parents with disabilities to comply with.  In addition, although ASFA requires states to make “reasonable efforts” to preserve a family before moving the child to an out-of-home placement and to reunify the family if a child has been removed, the vagueness of this term, coupled with the unadapted services typically provided to parents with disabilities, often results in “reasonable efforts” not being fairly applied to parents with disabilities.  Finally, ASFA allows child welfare workers to engage in concurrent two-track planning for children in out-of-home placement, which research shows is not equally engaged in for parents with disabilities.

[31] Id.; As NCD’s Rocking the Cradle, demonstrates, courts have resisted ADA defenses in child welfare proceedings or incorrectly held that the ADA does not apply to termination of parental rights proceedings.

[32] Id.; Beginning with the investigation into a report of child maltreatment, bias pervades the child welfare system at every step.  Termination of parental rights generally hinges on “unfitness.”  For parents with disabilities, demonstrating “fitness” can be insurmountable because of the significant speculation they face.  Presumptions of unfitness are most obvious in cases where the parent has never actually had custody of the child, as illustrated by the above story of the Missouri parents.

[33] See generally, NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 83 et seq.  An overarching lack of knowledge concerning parenting with a disability, particularly the use of adaptive parenting equipment or supports, often leads to child welfare workers and others engaged in custody determinations making uninformed decisions concerning capacity.

[34] Sara Olkon, Disabled Mom Fighting to Keep Her Son, Chicago Tribune (December 20, 2009),

[35] Through the Looking Glass, Legal Program, Battle for the Rattle: A Soldier Mom Story of Custody Court, Disability, and Mothering, available at

[36] Sarah Schulte, Disabled Single Mom Talks about Challenges of Raising Son, ABC 7 Chicago (May 4, 2011),

[37] Id.

[38] See generally, NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 136 et seq.

[39] Ella Callow et al., Parents with Disabilities in the United States: Prevalence, Perspectives, and a Proposal for Legislative Change to Protect the Right to Family in the Disability Community, 17 Tex. J. C.L. & C.R. 9-42 (2011).

[40] Megan Kirshbaum et. al., Parents with Disabilities: Problems in Family Court Practice, 4 J. Ctr. for Fam. Child & Cts. 27, 37-38 (2003).

[41] See generally, NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 181 et seq.

[42] Id.

[43] Id.

[44] Id.

[45] Brenda K. DeVries, Health Should Not Be a Determinative Factor of Whether One Will Be a Suitable Adoptive Parent, 6 Ind. Health L. Rev. 137, 141–142 (2009).

[46] NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 200.

[47] U.S. Department of State, “Statistics – Intercountry Adoption,” available at

[48] See generally, NCD Rocking the Cradle, supra at 205 et seq.

[49] National Council on Disability, The Current State of Health Care for People with Disabilities (2009), available at

[50] Id.

[51] Id.

[52] Coleman, supra at 20.

[53] Chris Watkins, Comment, Beyond Status: The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Parental Rights of People Labeled Developmentally Disabled or Mentally Retarded, 83 Calif. L. Rev. 1415, 1475 (1995).


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