South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a 19-page plan on Saturday aimed at “systematically dismantling institutions that discriminate against people with disabilities.” Buttigieg’s proposed policies have received significant praise from disability advocates, who see the plan as the most comprehensive in the 2020 election. In particular, the disability community is thrilled that his plan includes an often-overlooked issue: the rights of parents with disabilities.
Like other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who have released disability policy plans, such as Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Buttigieg’s plan covers a range of issues facing disabled people, such as employment, housing, transportation, and health care. It also includes the rights of parents with disabilities, which no other candidate’s plan mentions.
“It’s really forward-thinking for Buttigieg to address this large constituency—parents with disabilities—that has been badly neglected and largely ignored,” Dr. Erin Andrews, a board-certified rehabilitation psychologist, disability advocate, and disabled mother, told Rewire.News.
As people with disabilities are increasingly participating in their communities, a growing number are becoming parents. Indeed, researchers estimate that 1 in 10 parents in the United States have a disability. Nonetheless, as Buttigieg describes in his plan, parents with disabilities experience significant discrimination by the child welfare and family law systems.
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For example, a recent study found parents with psychiatric disabilities were eight times more likely than other parents to be involved with the child welfare system. Another study showed that at least 19 percent of children in foster care have a parent or caretaker with a disability. Parents with a range of disabilities also face challenges in visitation and custody disputes. Further, disabled people are often denied the opportunity to adopt or foster children because of their disabilities.
“It is unacceptable that in almost 20 states your child can be taken from you simply because of a disability diagnosis,” the Buttigieg campaign said in a statement to Rewire.News. “Instead of stigmatizing and punishing parents with disabilities, Pete’s plan offers them support. He is proposing the most comprehensive plan build an inclusive country for the disabled community because our country is stronger when we draw on the capability of everyone in it.”
“It’s a hopeful feeling to see the recognition that parents with disabilities face the very real fear that our families can be torn apart through no fault of our own,” Dr. Kara Ayers, professor, co-founder of the Disabled Parenting Project and disabled mom of three, told Rewire.News.
“Providing protections to prevent these injustices would move the needle towards equality for all,” she continued.
To address the bias and speculation facing disabled parents, Buttigieg’s plan says his “administration will lead in combating bias and stigma against parents with disabilities—especially disabled parents of color.”
Notably, the Obama administration was the first to systematically address issues facing parents with disabilities. In January 2015, for example, the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a joint “letter of findings,” following an investigation of discrimination against a disabled mother in Massachusetts. In that case, the DOJ and HHS found that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by removing a newborn baby from her family because of the mother’s disability, as well as failed to provide supports to the family.
Months later, in August 2015, the DOJ and HHS released technical guidance, clarifying the legal obligations of child welfare agencies and courts when working with disabled parents. Specifically, this guidance calls for the child welfare system to comply with federal disability rights by appropriately assessing the abilities of people with disabilities and providing services and supports as needed.
The Trump administration has not taken any additional known actions to ensure the rights of disabled parents.
Buttigieg’s plan also commits to improving policies and programs to support disabled parents and their families. In particular, his plan mentions “revisiting Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) policies to better support parents.”
As explained in the 2012 report by the National Council on Disability (NCD), “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents With Disabilities and Their Children,” Medicaid policies prohibit personal care assistants—individuals who are paid to assist disabled people in their homes—from helping with tasks related to childrearing. In contrast, the report says, other countries including, Canada, fund assistance to help parents with disabilities care for their children.
Certainly, expanding services and supports for parents with disabilities can benefit both parents and their children and also lead to less child welfare system involvement.
In addition to greater enforcement of the rights of disabled parents and increased services and supports, state laws must also be revised. Research indicates that roughly two-thirds of state laws allow for the termination of parental rights based on a parent’s disability. In those states, a parent’s disability—usually intellectual or psychiatric—may be used to justify permanently severing the parent-child relationship.
According to the NCD, an independent federal agency, “the legal system is not protecting the rights of parents with disabilities and their children.”
Because of the steadfast advocacy of disabled people, states are beginning to address issues facing parents with disabilities. According to my organization, the National Research Center for Parents With Disabilities, 18 states have passed legislation to ensure the rights of parents with disabilities, and an additional 12 states have bills pending.
Greater attention is needed to address the pervasive discrimination facing parents with disabilities, and Buttigieg’s plans are undoubtedly welcome.
“I was surprised but empowered to see parenting addressed because while families are the thread that holds our communities together, families like mine—those led by people with disabilities—have not been treated fairly by legal and child welfare systems for decades,” Ayers said. “I am so grateful a candidate even recognized the importance of this issue, and I hope the visibility on parenting with a disability continues to rise.”
With the election season underway and less than 100 days until the first caucuses and primaries, candidates must remember that people with disabilities represent a sizable voting bloc. As such, candidates must propose ways to address the wide range of issues facing disabled people—and that must include parenting.
Andrews agrees, noting that all candidates should include parents with disabilities in their policy plans. “Other candidates would be wise to take notice and examine how their platforms could address the civil rights of disabled families and work toward social justice for the disability community at large,” she said.