City and state elected officials heard hours of testimony from parents with disabilities, advocates, and others on the structural barriers and systemic biases that people with disabilities face while parenting
PHILADELPHIA—Today, the Committee on the Disabled and Persons with Special Needs held a public hearing on the rights of parents with disabilities, prompted by a resolution introduced by Councilmember Kendra Brooks (At-Large) on March 12, 2020. The hearing, which was chaired by Councilmember Derek Green (At Large), included extensive testimony from parents with disabilities who have faced discrimination when navigating issues related to adoption, foster care, custody, visitation, family law, and the child welfare system.
There are approximately 4.1 million parents with disabilities in the United State and one in ten children have a parent with a disability. Despite this, the unique parenting styles and capabilities of parents with disabilities are rarely considered within systems that assess whether an individual is fit to parent. In Pennsylvania, the disability of a parent alone can be included in legal determinations of whether a parent’s custody is in the child’s best interest.
During the hearing, parents testified that decisions on their ability to care for their child were regularly made at the discretion of individual government officials such as support providers, social workers, court-appointed advocates, and judges, and that these judgements were regularly biased or misinformed. Testimonies also highlighted that the lack of consistency and uniformity in these decisions makes it difficult for parents with disabilities and their advocates to navigate legal barriers to parenting, fostering, and adopting children.
“The lack of knowledge and professionalism by service providers when helping people who have disabilities is disheartening and infuriating because these families need services the same way that families without disabilities do,” said Domonique Howell, parent with a disability and a Disability and Family Advocate for Liberty Resources. “City agencies and hospital systems alike must educate themselves on disabilities, disability organizations, and the resources that are available to people with a disability. If we all come together to change the inner workings of the systems, more children with disabilities as well as parents with disabilities will be able to stay together and have the family unity we all deserve.”
Kimberly Ali, Commissioner for the Department of Human Services and Jill Bowen, Acting Commissioner for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services also provided testimony during the hearing and expressed their commitment to addressing the issues that were raised by taking steps to track the number of parents and families with disabilities that they are supporting.
A common theme across all testimonies was that although the parenting styles of people with disabilities may look different than people without disabilities, they are no less capable than non-disabled parents. However, individuals testified that the fear of discrimination and threat of being perceived as unable to provide care can often result in parents with disabilities being reluctant to reach out to social service agencies for needed supports.
Bishop Gerald Scott, a parent with a physical disability, talked about how he turned to the broad support from his community when he was in need, and that this support enhanced his parenting style.
“Whenever I needed assistance with doing anything for [my daughter] growing up, like doing her hair, watching her, or at times when an extra hand was needed to help her to get something done, I could depend on family, friends and even members of my church to assist me” said Scott. “There were places that I could not go or events and activities that I could not participate in, because of my physical challenges. At those times, I could depend on others to step in to fill the void.”
Latoya Maddox, who grew up in the foster care system with a physical disability and now is a parent who works at Liberty Resources, commented on the need to provide comprehensive services and support for individuals with disabilities at every age.
“We need to implement real change by creating pathways for parents with disabilities in the foster care system,” said Maddox. “This could begin by educating providers on systematic biases and ways to end them. Also using the resources and tools already in place to make changes to your organizational policies. This includes allowing us to have a voice on the policies and regulations designed to support our livelihoods. Adequate representation looks like a system that lifts-up family unity.”
Multiple people during the hearing drew parallels between the loss of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man with a disability who was killed by the Philadelphia Police Department last month, and the discrimination and lack of understanding that parents with disabilities face.
“Our encounters with these agencies frequently involve unwanted harassment, so we tend to avoid them even when they could be helpful.,” said Justin Salisbury, National Federation of the Blind-PA. “The parents of Walter Wallace, Jr., did not ask for the police; they asked for medical help for their disabled son, and the police killed him. Just as we need police reform so that the police can become more helpful than harmful, we need child welfare service reform so that these agencies can also become more helpful than harmful.”
Councilmember Kendra Brooks, a long-time advocate for individuals with disabilities and their families, expressed hope that the hearing would be the first step toward elevating the voices and experiences of parents with disabilities so that social service agencies can better understand their situation and support their unique needs.
“We need to ensure that parents with disabilities are included every step of the way when it comes to creating, evaluating and implementing services designed for them” said Brooks. “And we need to be diligent about collecting data that adequately documents where injustices are happening in order to enact lasting change. Today was just the beginning of the conversation. This hearing was the first step toward ensuring that parents with disabilities and their families in Philadelphia can live with the support, dignity, and respect that they deserve.”
Watch the hearing: