People joke that parenthood should come via license, like driving, and that you shouldn’t be allowed to have children unless you pass a test. Lisa Miller’s New York magazine story about one mother in Massachusetts makes that idea—and the parental and disability rights controversies that accompany it—real.
In 2012, Sara Gordon gave birth to a baby named Dana. The baby’s father was a “scumbag,” and relinquished parental rights. This was fine with Sara, who intended to raise their daughter with the help of her parents: she has an IQ of 70, and until three years ago, her condition was listed in the DSM as “mental retardation.”
Sara made it out of high school, but rather than a diploma, she received a certificate for completing four years. She can read, but she’d rather not, she told Miller, and she can better tell time on a digital clock. These abilities are immediately called into service for new mothers; after she delivered Dana at a New England hospital, nurses noticed that Sara wasn’t like the other new moms. She was overwhelmed by a feeding chart, and skipped a scheduled feeding because the room’s clock had hands.
Nurses became concerned and called in the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, or DCF, and a social worker named Scott Henderson declared Dana in unsafe conditions because Sara forgot to burp and clean the newborn during his visit, and struggled to change the baby’s diaper.
Following a judge’s verdict, 11-day-old Dana was placed in permanent foster care with the Fox’s, a Mennonite family. Sara was officially, legally, not smart enough to parent a child.
After Dana’s placement, Sara was initially allowed to see her daughter for one hour each week with the brief help of her own mother and the supervision of a social worker. She learned quickly that if she ever hoped to have her baby back in her care, she would have to play by the DCF’s rules.
“The social worker was like, ‘You have to do this and this and this and this,’ ” Sara remembers, “and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ” So she checked DCF’s boxes: She attended individual therapy and parenting classes and practiced diapering on baby dolls. She stayed in school. On her own initiative, she took and passed a CPR course.
Still, the DCF decided that the baby would be better off remaining with the Fox family permanently. (Sara’s parents, additionally, had a history of DCF investigation and intervention in the ‘90s, and weren’t the most unsullied secondary choices, either.)
Then, the Gordon family began to push back.
In 2014, Sara filed a discrimination suit against the DCF with the help of Kelly Buckland, the executive director of the National Council on Independent Living. Buckland sees disabled parenting as the next battleground for disability rights; “this is the most fundamental of human rights: the ability to reproduce and raise your children,” he says. He doesn’t feel that every disabled person should have and raise children but they should be assessed by their “merits, not their disability.”
Sara sent emails titled “Please Help Me Get My Daughter Back” to influential politicians and attorneys to get the word out.
“Dana was stolen from me,” Sara wrote. “I want my daughter Dana to live with my parents and me. I have a right to raise my daughter … I have done nothing wrong. I have never hurt her. I want her safe.”
Soon, lawyers from the Department of Justice as well as lawyers from Health and Human Services came around Massachusetts, and in November 2014, Sara got a chance to voice her opinion during a “foster care review.”
“How would you feel?” she began. She talked about how it felt to see her own child, to whom she’d given birth, just twice a month for an hour, to have no say over her life or her future, and to be on the brink of losing her for good. “I forget how I worded it, but I was like, ‘What did I do to deserve my kid being taken away? I did nothing wrong.’ ” Sara remembers. “And they all just paused for I’d say probably like five minutes. It was quiet in that room. Quiet.”
After the review session, the DCF’s decision was reversed, with the DOJ and HHS issuing a letter about Sara’s case in January 2015 that found “extensive, ongoing violations” of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Sara was reunited with her daughter Dana and they live with her parents; you can read Lisa Miller’s whole story here.
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