A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives that seeks to ensure federal protections for disabled parents involved in child welfare proceedings.
The Equality for Families with Disabilities Act, H.R. 8355, would require state agencies to include in their federally reviewed child welfare plans an explanation of the “procedural safeguards and supportive parenting services” it offered to disabled people who are parents, relatives, or foster or adoptive parents. Included in that explanation must be details about a “fact-specific” parenting assessment process that “does not rely on generalizations but evaluates the strengths, needs, and capabilities of the individual with a disability.”
“Protecting the rights of parents with disabilities must be a priority in Congress,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), in a statement announcing the bill. “All too often, the scrutiny on special needs families can be negatively shown in our society. Studies show that children who remain with their biological families have better outcomes across the spectrum. Our number one goal is to keep them with their families.”
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 bill was co-sponsored by Bacon and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), both co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. Langevin’s home state of Rhode Island passed a law last fall 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. A disability also cannot be used as the sole basis for a CPS investigation in Rhode Island.
That state law followed closely after a major development a few hours up Interstate 95 in Massachusetts. In the fall of 2020, the Bay State 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.
The DOJ kept the investigation going because it continued to hear similar reports out of Massachusetts. 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.”