Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I both have disabilities. He is blind and I suffer from a traumatic brain injury I received serving in Iraq. I’m pregnant and we’re due in about a month. We were both so excited, but a friend told us that there’s a chance we could lose custody of the baby because we both have disabilities. Now, instead of looking forward to becoming parents, we’re both in a panic. Is that true? If so, what can we do?
A: Thank you so much for your question. I often hear from parents with special needs kids, but rarely from disabled parents themselves—which is surprising for two reasons: First, there are more than four million parents in the US who have disabilities and children under 18. Second, those parents are far more likely than non-disabled parents to have their children removed from their home or to lose their parental rights. Parents with disabilities are also more likely than non-disabled parents to lose their children in a divorce and they face many obstacles when trying to adopt.
I have to admit that this surprised me. I grew up in northern California, which has always been the center of the disability rights movement. And the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed more than 20 years ago, was supposed to ensure that disabled people—including parents—have rights.
But then I read an eye-opening report from The National Council on Disability (ncd.gov), called “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children.” The report shows that when one or both parents have a psychiatric or cognitive disability (which could include your traumatic brain injury), removal rates can be as high as 40 to 80 percent. In addition, “Parents who are deaf or blind report extremely high rates of child removal and loss of parental rights.” The report also tells a number of heart-wrenching stories of people with disabilities who had their children taken away and lost their parental rights.
The big issue, of course, is whether the children of disabled parents are more likely to be mistreated or less likely to be properly cared for than children of non-disabled parents. If the kids are in danger, I’m all for removing them. But the criteria should be the same whether the parents are disabled or not.
One of the best ways to determine how well parents do their job is to ask the kids. And that’s exactly what two researchers at the National Center for Parents with Disabilities and their Families have been doing for several years. Paul Preston and Jean Jacobs have interviewed more than 1,000 people 17-21 who were raised by at least one parent with a significant physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disability. Fifty-eight percent said their experience having a parent with a disability was positive or very positive. Thirty-four percent said it was mixed, and 7 percent said it was negative. Doesn’t sound much different from the answers kids with non-disabled parents would give.
Interestingly, most of the young people in the study said that having a disabled parent gave them some specific advantages over their peers, such as learning better life skills and resourcefulness, and becoming more compassionate and independent. Only 39 percent felt they had too many responsibilities at home.
As far as what to do, start by downloading a copy of “Rocking the Cradle.” Next, connect with other parents with disabilities in your area and familiarize yourself with your legal rights. Through the Looking Glass (lookingglass.org) is a great resource for all of that.