Parent Education: A Means to Prevent the Separation of Parents With Disabilities and Their Children
Education and Career Path
I was accepted into the State University of New York at Buffalo State College as a journalism major, but after working as a counselor at a therapeutic day camp for children with behavioral disorders, I switched my major to social work. In my second year of college, I was hired as a teacher’s assistant at the college’s childcare center. I continued working there until I graduated, gaining much knowledge in infant and child development as well as skills in early care and education. A year after graduating I discovered the Family Help Center of Buffalo, a social services agency that provides preventive and intensive services, case management and school intervention services, youth groups, parenting groups, and a 24-hour helpline for families. For a year, I worked as the supervisor of the helpline and soon found my niche: family education.
I took as many trainings on educating parents as I could before finding the National Council on Family Relations’ Certification in Family Life Education. I took and passed the provisional certification exam and have since been promoted to a Parent Promoter within the new Community Parent and Child Bonding Program (CPCB) at the Family Help Center. In my new program, I continue to do one-on-one parent education, as well as facilitate parenting groups and conduct developmental assessments with children aged 0 to 5 years. The CPCB focuses on building parenting skills with individuals experiencing or at risk of facing homelessness. The parenting groups can be conducted in a home, in community centers and agencies, and in homeless and domestic violence shelters. Many of these parents have struggled with trauma, and many have mental health disorders and or developmental disabilities.
Introduction to Current Work as a Certified Family Life Educator
Slightly more than four million individuals in the United States have a disability, are parenting, and are living with children under age 18. According to the online article, “Know Your Rights: Parenting With a Disability,” posted in May 2016 on the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation website (https://www.christopherreeve.org/blog/daily-dose/know-your-rights-paren…), one in 10 children have a parent with a disability, yet 35 states recognize disability as grounds to terminate parental rights. Further, the National Council on Disability reported in its September 27, 2012, online publication, “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents With Disabilities and Their Children” (https://www.ncd.gov/publications/2012/Sep272012), that two thirds of family courts have been granted the right to determine whether parents are unfit due to their having a disability. A disability can be intellectual, developmental, psychiatric, sensory, or physical.
Many individuals are coping with a disability while parenting. Findings of the National Comorbidity Study provided in “The Prevalence of Parenthood in Adults With Mental Illness: Implications for State and Federal Policy Makers, Programs, and Providers,” a report prepared in 2002 by Nicholson, Biebel, Katz-Leavy, and Williams for the Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, indicated that of individuals with a severe mental illness, 65% were mothers and 52% were fathers.
In New York Magazine (January 24, 2016), journalist Lisa Miller described how a young woman named Sara Gordan, who had a learning disability that inhibited her ability to read documents and clocks with hands, lost custody of her baby as a result of her disability. The hospital where she gave birth saw her inability to understand feeding charts and keep track of when feedings should take place as a failure to parent. However, a feeding chart with pictures and a digital clock could have aided Sara in caring for her child. Sara’s child was placed in foster care, although Sara lived with her parents, who were ready to aid Sara in caring for her child. Sara went on to complete therapy and parenting classes, only to receive supervised visits with her child once a week. She was reunited with her daughter only after filing a petition for discrimination.
In my work as a social worker and parent educator, I have witnessed cases in which individuals with mental health illnesses or learning disabilities have lost custody of their children almost immediately after their births, as was the case with Sara. I have seen parents lose their newborn babies due to their mental health histories, which were not indicative of their current mental state or their parenting ability. These individuals or couples completed numerous parenting classes and groups and underwent individual and group counseling, only to lose their children to the foster care system. Similar to Sara’s story, these parents received weekly supervised visits due to concerns about the infants’ social-emotional states if they were to be completely separated from their parents.
Parent’s with disabilities, as in Sara’s case, can temporarily or permanently lose custody of their children. According to recent documents posted on the Child Welfare Information Gateway (https://www.childwelfare.gov), all 50 states have procedures for reunifying parent(s) and child after temporary loss of custody (see “Reasonable Efforts to Preserve or Reunify Families and Achieve Permanency for Children”). However, only 22 states offer conditions that individuals can meet to reinstate their rights as parents after they have been involuntarily terminated (see “Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights”). Yet even if everything on the court menu is completed, including parent education, it is not guaranteed that parental rights will be reestablished. Although procedures for individuals to regain legal rights of their children are necessary, the focus should be on the prevention of infants and children being removed from their homes in the first place.
Education as Prevention
Some individuals with disabilities have a slightly different experience, and although they make it home from the hospital without losing custody of their child, they may later experience discrimination from service providers or family and friends regarding their ability to parent. As a parent educator, I have worked with new parents who desire education in infant development and care or who have been referred by other individuals or service providers to obtain such education.
In my work with these parents, I have been able to teach infant feeding practices, including preparing, heating, and storing bottles; feeding schedules; hygienic practices, including diapering, dressing, bathing, and nail clipping; social-emotional education related to the importance of play and positive parenting; as well as case management assistance in areas including financial wellness, healthy eating, self-care, and obtaining and maintaining employment, education, and or public benefits.
Despite providing this education and witnessing individuals with disabilities thriving as parents, I have also witnessed these individuals being questioned by others, most often by service providers, regarding their parenting abilities. I believe this stems from a lack of education regarding disabilities, which can result in discriminatory practices. According to “Rocking the Cradle” (National Council on Disabilities), if service providers and family court professionals received more education regarding disabilities and parent education, it is less likely that false reports to Child Protective Services and false accusations regarding parenting ability would continue to occur as frequently.
If parents with disabilities received more support and education during pregnancy and throughout parenting from service providers such as social workers, nurses, psychiatrists, and home visitors, the ability of parents with disabilities to live with their children would increase, and the number of families separated would decrease. Supports suggested in “Guidance on Care for Parents with Learning Disabilities,” an article published in the August 19, 2007, issue of Nursing Times (https://www.nursingtimes.net/archive/guidance-on-care-for-parents-with-…), include individualized family plans, care coordination, meeting of basic needs, advocacy, parent groups, counseling, family planning services, and long-term supports when needed.
Service providers’ lack of accurate knowledge regarding the ability of individuals with a disability to successfully parent increases the likelihood of these parents losing custody of their children. There are many harmful effects on parents and children when separated by the Child Welfare System, and parent education can be used as a preventive approach for keeping families together. If individuals with disabilities received parent education before the birth of their child and long-term supports afterward, their chances of maintaining custody would increase. It is important to provide appropriate education and supports to maintain the family unit, including families in which individuals with disabilities are parenting.
Alicia Yeager, BSW, CFLE-P received her undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo State College while working as a teacher’s assistant within the college’s childcare center. Alicia is currently a Parent Promoter with the Community Parent–Child Bonding Program with the Family Help Center of Buffalo. Within the program, Alicia facilitates the Positive Solutions for Families and Parents Interacting With Infants groups under the Pyramid Model within shelters and with individuals displaced by homelessness or domestic violence.