Government Relations Update

Too often, parents with disabilities — mental, physical or both — must fight to maintain custody of their children, according to Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children, a 2012 report by the federal National Council on Disability (NCD). The NCD is an independent federal agency that advises the president, Congress and federal agencies on issues concerning individuals with disabilities.

More than 4.1 million parents have disabilities in the United States, and the number is steadily increasing as more people with disabilities live independently and veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan return home. Parents with disabilities routinely face barriers in parenting, from lack to access to reproductive health care to discriminatory treatment in child custody and adoption cases, the council found. The percentage of parents with intellectual disabilities who have their children taken away from them is as high as 40 percent to 80 percent.

To call attention to the barriers faced by these parents, APA, in collaboration with the NCD, the National Association of Social Work and the Child Welfare League, hosted an April 17 congressional briefing to highlight the findings in NCD's report.

The report cites APA's Guidelines for Assessment of and Intervention with Persons with Disabilities as a mechanism in assessing parents with disabilities in child welfare and family court. In addition, the report recommends several ways to ensure the rights of parents with disabilities. They include training judges, attorneys and other court personnel to be culturally competent in their work with people with disabilities; passing laws similar to the Indian Child Welfare Act to protect parents with disabilities; and enhancing collaboration between government agencies that work with children and people with disabilities.

For APA member Erin Andrews, PsyD, who co-chairs APA's Committee on Disability Issues in Psychology, the issue of parents with disabilities is personal as well as professional: Andrews is a congenital triple amputee and the mother of an 18-month-old son. She is also a rehabilitation psychologist at the Central Texas VA Health Care System and assistant professor at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.

In her remarks at the briefing, Andrews called for more research on parents with disabilities and highlighted the need for culturally competent trained health care professionals in addressing the reproductive needs of women with disabilities. She cited a recent survey that found that gynecologists were least likely to be able to accommodate patients with a wheelchair in their offices. She also gave examples of challenges she faces as a mother with a disability, such as finding day care and the difficulty of using her OB-GYN's examination table.

Andrews also offered recommendations related to parenting and disability:

  • Increase federal funding for research on parents with disabilities to include the collection of data on prevalence, experiences, needs and barriers faced by these families.
  • Include specific protections for parents with disabilities in the Adoption and Safe Families Act to provide for reasonable accommodations. Research suggests that parents with disabilities experience unfair challenges during the adoptive process. Further, there is growing evidence that prejudicial practices are systematically used in the termination of parental rights cases involving parents with disabilities. Congress should amend the Adoption and Safe Families Act so that these practices are specifically forbidden and so that the appropriate agencies are directed to enforce the law.
  • Require that parenting assessments be fully accessible to parents with disabilities and that custody evaluators receive training in conducting assessments of parents with disabilities and their children.
  • Promote education about and understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act as it relates to the legal requirement of nondiscrimination and require culturally competent training for health care providers on the assessment and treatment of people with disabilities.
  • Ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. APA supports the ratification of this UN treaty as a means not only to reaffirm our commitment to protect the rights of disabled persons but also to set an example for the international community on this critical human rights issue.

On the basis of the overwhelming response to the briefing, APA and its briefing partners will convene a meeting to discuss follow-up and next steps.

Stefanie Reeves is a senior legislative and federal affairs officer in APA's Public Interest Government Relations Office.