Parents with disabilities want support, not stigma

Child welfare workers too often jump to conclusions that parents with physical disabilities can't adequately care for their children, the head of a national advocacy group for people with disabilities says.

False belief exists that people with disabilities can't parent

Maricyl Palisoc and her partner, Charles Wilton, have cerebral palsy and are at risk of having their month-old son taken away by their local children's aid society. (CBC)

Child welfare workers too often jump to conclusions that parents with physical disabilities can't adequately care for their children, the head of a national advocacy group for people with disabilities says.

"Often there's the assumption that parents are unable to look after their child, rather than look at what can we do to help this family support the child," said Laurie Beachell, national co-ordinator with the Winnipeg-based Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

Beachell was responding to the case of a Toronto-area couple who gave birth to their first child last month, a boy named William. The parents both have cerebral palsy, or CP, a condition that often gives people difficulty with speech, movement and muscle control It's estimated that one in 500 babies, and up to one in three premature babies, are affected to some extent. More than 50,000 Canadians have CP.

Workers with the Peel Region Children's Aid Society wanted to apprehend the newborn immediately and put him in foster care. But advocates and supporters of the parents objected. The CAS backed off, but only allowed the baby to leave the hospital after friends of the parents agreed to pay for a full-time caregiver in the family's home.

The parents are expected to meet with children's aid workers on Friday to determine what happens next.

Mother struggled with stereotype

Cateland Penner of Winnipeg knows first-hand the struggles of being a parent with a disability. She and her husband both have cerebral palsy. They now have two children, a 15-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son.

Cateland Penner, above, and her husband, Greg, below, both have cerebral palsy. Their children are aged 15 and 8. (Cateland Penner)

"We thought about it for a long time. This was not just a whim," she said. "We went to counselling for six years. It was strictly out of fear because we knew what people would say. We definitely knew the barriers."

But Penner said they built a strong community of support around them and many of those people remain close friends today.

"I have no regrets," she said. "In terms of my kids, I would say they are much more sensitive to diversity and disability awareness."

Penner said it's sad to think that the barriers she overcame nearly 20 years ago are still there today. She said parents like her need to share their experience.

"We need networks and more supports. We may parent differently, but really the important thing is the love that is in your heart."

Melanie Moore of Hamilton agrees.  She and her husband are blind. They have three children; the youngest is five.  Like others, Moore said she still struggles to overcome stereotypes and negative perceptions, even among health professionals.

"It isn't just CAS workers. It's medical professionals, nurses and hospital staff," she said. "We all should focus on people's strengths, not their disabilities."

Moore is part of the Parenting with Disabilities Network, run by the Centre for Independent Living Toronto, or CILT.  It advocates and provides services and support for hundreds of parents who are disabled.

Melanie Moore, top right, and her husband, Brian, are blind and have three kids, including their son Graham. (Melanie Moore)

"You have to fight these battles," said Sandra Carpenter, executive director of CILT. It's particularly challenging for those who have trouble communicating, she said. "Unfortunately, it's an assumption: if you can't talk, then you can't be a capable parent."

Carpenter has advocated for many parents, many of whom are afraid that if they ask for help, especially from a children's aid society, they'll lose their children. But she said many child welfare agencies are seeing the benefits of keeping families together and now provide special programs to help in these cases.

"You have to look at the person and what are the circumstances in which they function," said David Baker, a Toronto lawyer whose firm specializes in disability cases. He said that over the years, courts have become reluctant to remove children from their families if there's another option. It is often not in a child's best interest to go into foster care.

He said he hopes this latest case in the Toronto area is just an isolated incident and not an indication of a shift in child welfare policy that favours seizing children rather than supporting them in their own homes.

Most cases now resolved

Several cases across Canada in the past three decades have seen children's aid move to take kids away before fully assessing the situation, according to Beachell. But he said most are resolved once workers realize that with supports, the children in these families can function and flourish.

"Our first approach should be to provide the necessary supports," Beachell said. "The first assumption should not be to scoop the kid out of the family.

"There are lots of situations where we provide support to young moms and newborns, and this should be no different."

Beachell said history shows that parents with disabilities can parent as well as any others. It's often just a case of raising awareness, and of making help available from existing government programs such as homecare, he said.

There's also an economic argument to keeping families together, Beachell added: The cost of providing basic support to a family is far less in the long-term than the economic and social costs of taking children into care.