Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-Fla.) has introduced a renewed effort to ensure federal protections for disabled parents involved in child welfare proceedings.
“Parents and guardians with disabilities will oftentimes face unreasonable scrutiny, being treated differently in child welfare proceedings and discriminated against by state agencies,” said Cherfilus-McCormick in a statement announcing the bill. “This legislation would address such prejudices and ensure that all parents receive the fair assessment they deserve.”
The Equality for Families with Disabilities Act would require state agencies to include in their federally reviewed child welfare plans an explanation of the “procedural safeguards and supportive parenting services” it offers to disabled people who are parents, relatives, or foster or adoptive parents. The explanation must be “fact-specific,” the bill says, laying out a parenting assessment process that focuses on the strengths and needs of a person with a disability.
The bill also requires that states demonstrate “meaningful efforts” to provide services that create an equal opportunity for disabled parents and caregivers. And it amends the State Court Improvement Program — a federal program that distributes money to states for training and pilot projects to improve the child welfare legal process — to allow the funding to go toward ensuring equal opportunities for disabled parents.
The intersection of child welfare and disability policy has been a subject of scrutiny for years. In the fall of 2020, Massachusetts settled with the Department of Justice after a five-year investigation that began with a case where a newborn was removed from a 19-year-old mother with a mild intellectual disability.
While the state did not admit to breaking any laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, it agreed to appoint a statewide disability coordinator, change some of its policies and not make child removal decisions based on “stereotypes or generalizations” about disabled parents.
When the settlement was announced, Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division under former President Donald Trump, said it should be viewed as a “road map for child welfare agencies nationwide on how to treat parents with disabilities with the fairness, dignity, and respect that they deserve.”
Rhode Island passed a law in 2021 stating that a parent’s disability cannot be the sole basis to deny or restrict their rights in matters involving a child’s welfare, foster care, guardianship or adoption.
In January of this year, the Associated Press broke the story that the Justice Department was looking into an artificial intelligence tool being used in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, because it had received reports that the tool might be discriminatory to disabled parents.
In introducing the Equality for Families with Disabilities Act this week, Cherfilus-McCormick picks up the mantle from former Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who is quadriplegic and a renowned advocate for the disabled. Langevin retired from Congress this year after more than two decades in the House of Representatives.
Cherfilus-McCormick is joined on the bill so far by eight Democrats. Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who co-sponsored the bill last year with Langevin, has thus far not signed onto it.