Braille Monitor                                                                                                   July 2004

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Blind Parents, Child Protection Agencies,
and the Courts

by J. Michael Jones

Mike Jones
Mike Jones

From the Editor: Mike Jones is president of the NFB of Alabama. He is working on his doctorate at Auburn. In recent times he has been busy protecting the rights of blind parents who were in danger of losing their children to over-zealous and uninformed social workers. This is what he says:

The following article from the April 12, 2004, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, tells the story of a blind couple who had their newborn daughter taken away from them. The paper gives the details of this human drama, but it also describes a pattern that is all too familiar to blind people everywhere.

The National Federation of the Blind preaches and demonstrates the message that blind people can compete in every area of life with the same competence (including supervising, educating, and nurturing children) as our sighted neighbors. Unfortunately the general presumption has been that blind people cannot adequately handle everyday parental activities. This presumption often begins with and is perpetuated by employees of the state child protection agency. Alabama alone has seen six cases of blind parents losing custody of their children over the past four years. In every case the NFB responded and successfully resolved each of these cases for the blind parent.

In every case President Maurer demonstrated his leadership and belief in the fundamental abilities of blind parents by responding to each request for assistance. That type of national leadership helps to ease the work of a state president and increase the chances for success. But the national organization cannot respond to every case, which is why the NFB of Alabama backed the introduction of legislation this year in the state legislature that would prevent our state child protection agency from using a parent's disability as part of the criteria for determining child abuse or neglect. This legislation has passed at the committee level and is awaiting its fate in floor debate. Regardless of how this piece of legislation fares, Federationists everywhere may want to examine legislative protection for blind parents in their own states and strengthen it if necessary.

The following story from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer points to some prevalent attitudes among social service employees. The age-old presumption of incompetence on the part of the blind parent seems always at the heart of these conflicts. The judicial system in Alabama is weighted in favor of the state agency. When a child is removed from the home, a court hearing must take place within seventy-two hours of the removal. The court proceedings are hidden from the public, witnesses are not called, and the state agency is permitted to present hearsay evidence. Later in the process the parents get a fair hearing, but not until their child has been separated from them for sixty or ninety days or even longer. Here is the story of the most recent battle in Alabama. We can only hope that the current bill will pass and that blind parents will then be treated with justice and good sense and will not be subjected to the overt superstition this family faced.

Advocate Says Disabled Parents Stripped of Rights

by Jack Stripling

When Pyanne Jordan's first daughter was born Tuesday, she could barely see the infant. Now she can't see her baby at all.

Jordan and her husband are both blind, a fact they say prompted the Department of Human Resources' Thursday decision to place their newborn in state custody.

"It's unfair. It shouldn't have happened," said Jordan, a twenty-year-old Talladega resident. "And I feel that it happened because we're visually impaired."

The scenario the Jordans describe has a familiar ring to Michael Jones, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama. In the course of four years, Jones said, he's seen six cases where he felt parents were accused of abuse or neglect solely because they were blind.

"What the hell did they do? The only thing they did was what they were, which was blind," said Jones, a blind parent and Auburn resident.

Jones's frustration led him to send a complaint upstream to the state legislature. He found a sympathetic ear in Rep. Joseph Mitchell, D-Mobile, who is now sponsoring a bill to address what Jones views as outright discrimination.

Mitchell's bill would amend a section of Alabama code, adding a clause that forbids courts from ruling that a disability "in and of itself" constitutes abuse or neglect.

Mitchell will be the first to say disabled parents are just as capable of parental failures as anyone else. But in cases where a blind parent abuses a child, Mitchell says blindness isn't what's at issue.

"The disability there happens not to be one of sight or hearing, but one of compassion and education," Mitchell said.

DHR officials say social workers examine behavior--not disability--when determining whether a child should be removed from the home. There are no policies that equate disability and neglect or abuse, said Shirley Scanlan, program manager for the Office of Child Protective Services.

"We don't have policies like that," Scanlan said. "They're written in terms of the impact on the child."

But do the policies and practices always coincide? Or have social workers recommended children be removed solely because a parent is disabled?

"I can't say that for fifty-seven counties," Scanlan said. "But I can say that our policies are around what is occurring in reference to the child."

John Hardy of DHR's Office of Constituent Affairs provided input from DHR as the Mitchell bill was crafted. The bill's language mirrors policies already in place at DHR, Hardy said.

"Since I've been working with the legislature, I've found that a lot of people like our policy, but they would rather have it in law," Hardy said.

Jones speaks favorably of his dialogue with Hardy but says major systemic problems keep DHR in the business of discrimination. When blind families have called on him for help in these cases, Jones said DHR officials root their arguments in "ignorance and fear" of the blind community.

Social workers are simply not trained to understand that parents like Jones have to use different methods of supervision, Jones said.

DHR officials stand by social worker training but admit dealing with disabled parents isn't a specific part of the curriculum.

"We don't have any written part of the curriculum for child welfare workers," said John Bradford, DHR spokesman. "There might be some discussion, but there's no written part."

DHR officials cannot discuss abuse and neglect cases, but the Jordans concede that some of the changes DHR has recommended are reasonable. Both parents are unemployed and drawing disability, and Tyrone Jordan said he shares DHR's concerns about a ten-inch-wide hole in the floor of the family's home. He fell through it recently himself but has since covered it with wood.

Jordan has been ordered to find a new home before his daughter will be returned, and he says he will comply.

Jordan is less than enthused, however, about the suggestion that he needs a seeing adult to supervise his family around the clock--a condition he'll have to go along with to get his child back.

"As of this weekend, after that we have no more privacy," he said. "They're going to be around all the time."

The family also was ordered to get rid of their cat, which Jordan says they will do.

"They say the cat takes the baby's breath away," said Jordan, fifty-one. "Of course, we are responsible enough not to have the animal around the child."

Unlike his wife, Jordan has been a parent before. He has a twenty-seven-year-old daughter, and Jordan said his parenting skills shouldn't be a subject of debate.

In reality, Jordan says, parenting isn't even part of the DHR equation. In Jordan's view this is a fundamental debate about whether blind parents can adequately supervise children. "They are not going to admit that of course," Jordan said, "because they know that would be a discrimination charge."



Pooled Income Gifts

In this plan money donated to the National Federation of the Blind by a number of individuals is invested by the NFB. Each donor and the NFB sign an agreement that income from the funds will be paid to the donor quarterly or annually. Each donor receives a tax deduction for the gift; the NFB receives a useful donation; and the donor receives income of a specified amount for the rest of his or her life. For more information about the NFB pooled income fund, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, phone (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.

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