Under current practices, Bartolo said, an expert assessment of a child's home life and the possible provision of services to the disabled parents might occur only after the child has been removed and "the damage has been done." Going forward, she hopes child-welfare agencies will try harder to provide support before a problem worsens, potentially reducing the need for foster-care placements.
The report praises a few states — including Idaho, Kansas and California — for modifying child-custody laws to the benefit of disabled parents. It urges Congress to amend the Americans with Disabilities Act to add protections for parents, and it calls on state lawmakers to eliminate disability as a distinct ground for terminating parental rights.
Christine Waters, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, based in Syracuse, worked with colleagues in 2008-09 in a bid to change the state law specifying that parental rights can be terminated if a parent has psychiatric problems or is intellectually impaired. Some legislators expressed support, Waters said, but the effort ultimately failed.
"Everything would look like it was going fine ... and then there would be some well-publicized, awful incident where someone who had a mental illness — without support — did something shocking and horrible, and a child was seriously harmed or died and we'd be back to square one," Waters said.
Waters said some child-welfare officials resisted any change, wary of being held responsible if something went wrong.
The assumption that people with disabilities can't parent "is bad for society and heartbreaking for families," Waters said. "The easy thing is to terminate the parental rights. We need to do the right thing, not the easy thing."
Disabled parents whose parenting ability comes into question often are placed at a disadvantage by parenting assessments that are inappropriate or unfair, the report says. It calls for better research to improve assessment standards and gain more knowledge about how various disabilities affect the ability to be an effective parent.
One topic worth further study, it said, is "parentification" — the phenomenon in which children of disabled parents take on various caregiving responsibilities, even at a young age.
In Arlington Heights, Ill., Jenn Thomas, a 36-year-old mom who has cerebral palsy, says her 8-year-old twins occasionally complain about having to do a few extra chores around the house to help her.
Her daughter, Abigail, nods and smiles upon hearing this, but says for the most part, their lives are "kind of normal." For her, having a mom with a disability is just how it is, she says, shrugging.
Sometimes, they ride on the chair with her — especially son Noah because he, like his father, D.J., is a "little person," the term used by the family and others for someone genetically predisposed to having unusually short stature. When activities are farther away, the couple has created a support network to help when D.J. is working. He drives, but Jenn does not.
"I want them to enjoy activities and not be limited because I am limited," she says. So she coordinates with neighbors to help get the kids to swimming, cello lessons or basketball practice. Or she arranges for "paratransit," a bus service for riders with disabilities and their families.
Friends also helped redesign their kitchen to make it more accessible.
The new report stresses that improved networks of support for disabled parents — encompassing transportation, housing, health care, and outside intervention when appropriate — should be welcomed, and not viewed as evidence that the parents on their own are incapable.
When children do face removal from their disabled parents, those parents may encounter barriers to meaningful participation in their legal cases, the report says. For example, financially struggling parents may have to rely on a court-appointed attorney with no special knowledge about the effects of disability.