In May 2010, a young couple welcomed the birth of their first baby girl. As Mom prepared to nurse baby for the first time, she struggled to position baby correctly on her breast. For a moment, her breast blocked baby’s nose, and baby began to turn blue. Mom called her nurse, who helped reposition baby, assuring Mom that it’s common for new mothers to need a little help getting the hang of nursing, and all was well.
But a few hours later, a social worker was contacted. Concerns were raised about the parents’ abilities to care for a newborn. Two days after her birth, baby was placed in a foster home, where she would stay until she was nearly two months old.
Why would a brief nursing mishap lead to the removal of a newborn from her parents? Especially when Mom was responsible enough to ask for help?
Because, you guessed it-Mom and Dad are both blind.
When the social worker first arrived, she bombarded the new parents with questions about how they would feed, change, transport and care for an infant. Mom and Dad, despite sure exhaustion from the birth process, answered the questions capably. Even so, the social worker ultimately stated that “I just can’t, in good conscience, send this baby home with two people who are blind.” For the next 57 days, Mom and Dad could only visit their newborn baby three times per week. Baby missed out on her mother’s milk, while her parents missed the feel of her first snuggles and the sound of her first giggles.
Click here to read more about this case
This story of Erica Johnson, Blake Sinnett, and their daughter Mikaela rocked the blind advocate community, especially the young adults like me. But thousands of disabled parents have their own stories, variations on this similar theme. Their disability becomes tied up in questions about their fitness as parents, and once the child welfare system becomes involved, proving their fitness can be an uphill battle. And the threat doesn’t end once parents take their newborns home from the hospital; well-meaning neighbors, strangers on a bus, even relatives may call the child welfare agency in at any time. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects disabled parents’ rights, but many states still have outdated child welfare laws allowing social services to consider a parent’s disability as an automatic strike against their parental fitness. The consequences of this presumption can be tragic for families. Baby Mikaela got to come home to her parents, but too many cases end in the termination of the disabled parent’s rights.
According to a National Council on Disability report, disabled parents may be more than three times as likely as nondisabled parents to have their parental rights terminated. The removal of children from disabled parents is perhaps one of the most serious instances in which good intentions, combined with a fundamental misunderstanding of disability, lead to grave harm for both the parents and their children.
Below is a personal essay from Jo Pinto, a novelist and mom to a 9-year-old girl. Jo is blind. From her writings on parenting, it is clear that she is a good, responsible, involved mom. Yet she recounts the continual fear of child welfare’s involvement in her family life, and how an innocent misfortune like some gnats in her daughter’s lunchbox can trigger a cascade of worry. Yet she persists and prevails with confidence. This is what she says:
My nine-year-old daughter Sarah burst through the front door and shoved her soft-sided lunchbox into my lap full force, right on top of the braille book I was proofreading. “Mom! Bugs flew out at me! I opened the zipper, and a cloud of bugs just poofed out at me!”
“What? Wait, what?” I set aside my work, took the lunchbox, and like any respectable mom, shifted immediately into sleuth mode. “Start from the beginning. Bugs flew out of your lunchbox? What did the bugs look like? What did you do?”
“Tiny black bugs. They were disgusting. I screamed—eeeww! Then my friend Lily saw them and she screamed, and this boy Darien saw them and he screamed, too. The lunch lady ran over, and she thought the bugs were gross. so she got the custodian to clean out my lunchbox. And I didn’t want to eat the food, so I got another lunch.”
I kept calm on the outside, but I felt a familiar terror gripping my heart, mercilessly, like a cruel, crushing hand. The hand let go of my heart as my thoughts whirled; then it slid upward to my throat, digging viciously into my windpipe, cutting off my breath.
Who else had seen those bugs fly out of my daughter’s lunchbox? Surely everybody had noticed, especially since Sarah had been such a drama queen about it. What if the custodian or the cafeteria supervisor decided Sarah’s blind mom couldn’t keep a clean kitchen, since she sent her little girl to school with bugs in her lunchbox? I was almost sure the bugs were harmless. They were probably just common house gnats, but still. EEEWW!
“I’m sorry about the bugs.” I forced myself to speak calmly, although I was fighting like mad to keep from hyperventilating. “That must have been embarrassing. But gnats are harmless. They’re just annoying little critters that eat fruit. They probably stowed away on the pineapple or the bananas we bought last night. I’ll make sure your lunchbox is nice and clean for tomorrow.”
I washed the lunchbox out with antibacterial soap, and when Sarah’s dad came home from work that night, he flushed the kitchen and bathroom drains out with vinegar and hot water, just in case.
“Drink up, boys!” he said cheerfully. “That should take care of the gnats for a while.”
But it would take a lot more than vinegar and water to wash my fears away. Blind parents are three to four times more likely to be referred to Child Protective Services (CPS) than their sighted peers are. I couldn’t keep from wondering if the gnats in Sarah’s lunchbox would be the next issue that prompted some well-meaning school official to pick up the phone.
The first time I had to face down CPS, someone had called me in because I had a “big black mean-looking dog”—and you never know, a dog might harm a crawling baby if her mom couldn’t keep watch on the situation every moment. Ballad, my second guide dog, would never have hurt a fly. Sarah used to sit on her head now and then, and Ballad would hardly wake up from her nap to shrug off the annoyance. The case was closed, unfounded.
The second time a social worker and a police officer appeared on my porch, I had brought home some groceries on a sweltering summer day. I was trying to unlock my front door, juggling a guide dog, a cranky toddler, a heavy backpack, a sack of canned goods, and a gallon of milk. Something had to go. What went was the gallon of milk, which was the reason I had gone to the store in the first place. Splat! All over the front porch. I cursed. My daughter cried. The dog began lapping up the milk, which ran like a river over my feet and down the porch steps. I dropped the bag of canned goods in the puddle. It was my turn to cry as I rushed into the house. An hour later, I had a police officer and a social worker on my still milky doorstep, informing me that an anonymous caller said “the blind lady wasn’t coping well.” I told them I would have coped a whole lot better if the anonymous caller had come to my aid, mop and bucket in hand, maybe with a listening ear besides, instead of calling the social workers and the police. The case was closed, unfounded.
Next, a nosy neighbor had threatened to call CPS because I regularly took my little girl to the swimming pool by myself at the condo complex where we lived.
“Some of the other moms and I, we’ve been talking,” she told me. “We think it’s dangerous for you and Sarah to be at the pool alone.”
Instead of asking her why she and the other moms didn’t come hang out with us at the pool—which, in hindsight, might have been a really good question—I assured her that my daughter had worn flotation devices since infancy, that I’d been a competitive swimmer in high school and was competent in the water, that I stayed right next to Sarah as she swam and kept in verbal and physical touch with her at all times, and that I wasn’t about to let the fears of the neighborhood moms limit my little girl by keeping her home from the pool I helped pay for with my HOA dues. I believed that learning to swim, at least enough to save herself from drowning, was not only a great opportunity for my daughter but also an important precaution I needed to take for her safety. So if the neighborhood moms felt the need to call CPS, they could do what they had to do and I’d take on that battle when it landed in my lap. I never heard another word about it.
Nevertheless, as a blind mom, the nagging worry about CPS lurks constantly in the back of my mind. When my daughter gets a new teacher at school or joins a different Sunday school class at church, I feel happy for the opportunity. Then she inevitably does something goofy—and perfectly normal—like wear a raggedy old jacket that’s two sizes too small. You know, the kind of jacket you thought you threw in the box of cleaning rags under the kitchen sink. And the worry in the back of my mind flares up into a hot flame of fear. What if the new teacher thinks I can’t dress my daughter properly? What if she decides to make the dreaded phone call? Fortunately, the teacher laughs off the incident when I explain that my kid has a very unconventional fashion sense and that she’s a hoarder in training. and the flame of fear dies down to a nagging worry once again—till next time.
Thankfully, the gnats disappeared easily from my kitchen, and nobody from the school made a big deal about them. But raising kids in a fishbowl is a sad reality for disabled moms in our society. We have set incredibly narrow standards of what motherhood should look like. When people see moms who deviate from those standards, suspicion and judgment tend to be their first reactions. Most people soften their views with familiarity and education, but blind moms and those with other disabilities unfortunately get used to parenting under pressure as their children grow up and navigate the normal scrapes and scuffles of life. The good news is, I’ve found that most of the issues my daughter and I face are no different than the ones sighted parents and their children deal with every day. I know I’m a good mom, so in spite of the nagging worry about CPS that lingers in my mind and flares up into full-blown fear now and then, I have the confidence as a parent to face down any obstacles that come my way. Be they gnats or nosy neighbors or unknown trials of the future, I’ll prevail against them one by one.
[Reprinted from Blind Motherhood]
Click here to read about blind parents raising their children