In 2012, child welfare authorities sought to remove a new-born baby immediately after birth from a couple who both had cerebral palsy. Authorities identified that the parents would need support in caring for their child, but instead of the state providing that support, they were willing to spend significant dollars to remove the child from the home. The mother told CBC, “We know that we need help, but we know that we are the best thing for our boy right now. We both wanted to be parents and now we are, and we don’t want to give anyone control of our family.”
That is just one example of the stigma against parents with disabilities. That stigma—that parents with disabilities are less able to parent—shows up in the way that law and policy are designed and implemented. Since we know that women disproportionately carry the burden of child care and single mothers head up the vast majority of lone parent households, this stigma against parents with disabilities is particularly borne by women.
Moms with disabilities face unique challenges in the intersection between gender and disability. Mothers may lose their children through custody disputes or child protection proceedings because of perceptions about their abilities, rather than the best interests of their children. Women seeking to be mothers also face greater difficulties than nondisabled women in exercising their reproductive rights or accessing reproductive technology.
“We know that we need help, but we know that we are the best thing for our boy right now …”
A recent U.S. study showed that the American legal system discriminates against disabled parents and their children. Statistics show that child-removal rates from parents with psychiatric disabilities are as high as 70 to 80 percent. From parents with intellectual disabilities, the rates range between 40 and 80 percent. No similar research exists on the Canadian legal system.
In response, West Coast LEAF is currently working on a project called “Mothering with Disabilities.” We are exploring the answers to three questions.
- What are the legal issues facing mothers with disabilities?
- What are the legal rights of mothers with disabilities and how do existing laws and policies impact these women’s rights as parents?
- And finally, how should these laws and policies be reformed to ensure greater respect for the rights of mothers with disabilities?
Our work in this area is informed by a number of key principles, including that the voices of mothers with disabilities must form the basis for all law reform recommendations and that, while decisions concerning child custody and care must always be made in the child’s best interests, very often the outcomes for children will be better when the rights of their mothers are respected.
The project has been undertaken with the hope that the research will not only shed light on the kind and extent of discrimination faced by disabled mothers, it will also help trigger a change in the way their capabilities as parents are viewed. We expect our final report to be published later next year. We are grateful for the support of the Notary Foundation of B.C. on this project.
This article was originally published in the The Scrivener, Vol. 22 No.4 Winter 2013 and is reprinted with permission.