And the minute she saw me, she was like, "Oh my God, I get to go home."
January 26, 2016 6:27 AM   Subscribe

The state said a 19-year-old with an intellectual disability wasn’t equipped to look after her baby and whisked the newborn off to another family just after birth—a decision the mother was ready to fight. But how smart do you have to be to raise a child?

New York magazine tells the story of a 19-year-old woman with an IQ of 70 whose baby was taken away from her by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families before she left the hospital, and her two-year fight to get her daughter back.
posted by Etrigan (26 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Huh. This is honestly a complex case, but it kind of dodges the question at its heart, because Sara's parents were able and willing to help - it's almost like returning the child to grandparent custody. This case would be a lot harder to decide otherwise, and I'm not sure what the answer is.

I really feel for the Foxes, though. I think I'm some ways being a foster parent must be enormously difficult not just for the difficulties with the children, but the challenge of opening your heart enough to adopt if the circumstances are right, and closing it enough to give the child back if the circumstances are wrong.
posted by corb at 6:46 AM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I read this and immediately thought of fosterhood. If you don't follow her blog you really should to get a more intimate sense of foster care.
posted by k8t at 6:59 AM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really, really don't understand why Sara's parents weren't given custody if Sara was deemed unfit. A kinship placement should always be the first option if it's available, and it sounds like it was in this case.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:24 AM on January 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

The discussion on Jezebel, which also linked this article, is all about how terrible it was that the state took the baby away and how this is some sort of triumph for everyone involved. The coverage implies that it's a disability rights issue. And I think, in this instance, it is a triumph. But not because an intellectually handicapped woman got her child back due to her actual ability to take care of the baby. While I think Sara showed remarkable tenacity and force of will, I think that her inability to do things like read an analog clock and, more importantly, to understand and comply with a schedule or to be able to use a teaspoon are big reasons why, in the absence of the grandparents, it would have been a bad idea for her to regain custody. If you can't measure medicine for your kid, that's bad news.
But it's all a moot point because the grandparents were ready and willing to help. And the follow up in the article seems to say that, while the house is chaotic and messy, it's probably no worse than many loving homes in this country and that the baby is happy and loved and safe. Which is the point.
posted by megalodon at 7:25 AM on January 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

That was a very interesting read about a very complicated issue. While I suppose the natural tendency is to root for the biological parent, I'm not sure the white hats and black hats are obvious here. My intellectually disabled brother and his intellectually disabled ex-wife were parents to a severely intellectually disabled son. They loved him dearly and were doting parents, but there were definitely aspects to his care that were less than ideal due to their limitations, including, but not at all limited to, either not recognizing or not having the emotionally maturity to admit that he was suffering from a major medical issue (he died of cancer at 15 which was discovered very late despite some rather obvious warning signs that were ignored).
posted by The Gooch at 7:58 AM on January 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

ArbitraryAndCapricious, the article did mention (although i agree somewhat unsatisfying) the reservation at the time about granting the grandparents custody (notably that they had their own children removed from their care and that there were unproven suspicions of abuse).
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 8:05 AM on January 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

I have a lot of thoughts on the custody issues of the case, but I am bursting to say THIS: WTF Dana's bio father? Apparently he had another child who he severed rights to. I am angry that he can knock up two young women - one of whom is developmentally disabled - and just walk away, leaving others to mop up the mess he's made.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:11 AM on January 26, 2016 [14 favorites]

Agree that the grandparents' support is probably the crucial factor, but:

Twice, when Dana was crying, Sara could not manage to console her. Both times, after the baby cried nonstop for about 20 minutes, DCF terminated the visit.

God help any first-time parent being judged by that standard.
posted by ostro at 8:15 AM on January 26, 2016 [48 favorites]

Also, I hope the Gordons' relationship with the Foxes is still good enough to allow Dana to have a relationship with her half-brother.
posted by ostro at 8:20 AM on January 26, 2016

These decisions need to be made in the child's best interests. Not the mother's, or the grandparents'...the child's.
And in this case it looks like they performed their due diligence and ultimately found that returning Dana to her mother, with the help of her grandparents, was in her best interest.

As for the father, it's best that he's personally out of the picture but he should definitely have a wage garnishment order following him around for the next 18-22 years.
posted by rocket88 at 8:34 AM on January 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

A related piece by Jill LePore at the New Yorker, on Boston's Baby Doe.
posted by mwhybark at 8:35 AM on January 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

I was going to say, DCS doesn't have a great record recently independent of IQ tests. Massachusetts DCS is generally agreed to be in horrible shape.
posted by maryr at 9:15 AM on January 26, 2016

These decisions need to be made in the child's best interests. Not the mother's, or the grandparents'...the child's.
And in this case it looks like they performed their due diligence and ultimately found that returning Dana to her mother, with the help of her grandparents, was in her best interest.
And in January 2015, DOJ and HHS issued a letter finding the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families had committed “extensive, ongoing violations” of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the case of Sara Gordon. “DCF acted based on Ms. Gordon’s disability as well as on DCF’s discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes about her disability,” it said. The letter said nothing about adequate parents or optimal outcomes or a 2-year-old’s best interests. It merely said that in its dealings with Sara Gordon, DCF made assumptions about Sara’s ability, that it did not take into account her strong support network, and that it consistently failed to accommodate her disability to help her live as much as possible like everyone else.
I believe the case the DOJ made was that DCS wasn't doing their due diligence and was acting on bias until the birth family caught the attention of national ADA lobbyists who then put pressure on Massachusetts DCS. In fact the article states that the final decision was not based on the child's best interest, but based simply on the fact that DCS was in violation of the ADA.
posted by edbles at 9:50 AM on January 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

While parental rights while disabled is a topic that I'm very sensitive too, and frightened by, I'm also aware of how broken the system is in general. This article highlights some of the complexity that exists, and cynic in me, sees parenting while disabled as one of the less contentious illustrations of this.

There's no question that disability impacted the initial removal and rejection of kinship care. I suspect that kinship placement wasn't initially considered for three reasons: disability, prior contact, and the role of case workers.

The first issue, which the article is predominantly about, involves social services failure to see Sara as an autonomous person with her own capacities, despite her disability/label. I don't think that her desire to parent, or her preferences for placement were initially considered. I'm personally terrified of this.

The second issue is her parent's prior contact with social services. It obviously wasn't a barrier to final placement, but their history, along with Sara's lack of autonomy (w/social services) lead to their exclusion.

If the grandparents pushed for kinship placement, the discussion would move from "disability rights" to "is a family with prior contact and a disabled daughter, really in the best interests of a baby removed at birth?" That question becomes even more of a minefield.

(Ironically, the grandparents consider this very intervention to have been beneficial, providing them with the tools necessary to parent their daughter and granddaughter.)

In the end, it sounds as if the decisions made throughout this case were based solely through judgements of social services, not changes to law/policy.

Sara didn't get the right to parent because courts found social services violated ADA or discriminated against her. The next Sara may go through the same thing, and so forth. This is the third piece.

The foster care system is overburdened and under-valued. It's under-valued because it involves families, children and other things considered to be in the private domain. It also intersects with many public domains (legal, social, medical, educational). It's over-burdened because of the bureaucractic systems in place to deal with the complex Personal in Public. These systems are necessary, but bureaucracies are notoriously inefficient when dealing with individual cases, and as Tolstoy noted "each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".

Regardless of official policy, by necessity, foster-care then becomes an adversarial system due to this nature of opposing demands. The work environment is contentious , and often times traumatic. Lives are at stake, and since cases take years to resolve, workers by necessity must have the authority to intervene.

What does this due to the culture of workers within the foster care system? How can authority in an environment consisting of: conflict, risk, opposing demands, under-valued work with limited resources and training in an overburdened system not wind up misguided (at best?).

In this case, social services determined that their institutional autonomy, experience and etc, overruled the autonomy of an individual (which is not unusual) who happened to also have a disability. They ignored/fought against policies meant to protect disabled individuals, but what is this policy, but another obstacle preventing them from effectively doing what they see as their job? Makes sense, but doesn't make it right.

Like a lot of decisions surrounding social services, I suspect that the response towards disability is truly variable. That variability concerns me, as does the lack of/adherance to straight-foward policy. I have no idea how to fix this.

On one hand, I feel extra vulnerable to scrutiny by child protective services, because I'm disabled, and that seems appalling. I want to protect myself. On the other, I realize that these issues are systemic, and examining it from a disability only perspective belies privilege. I think the system needs to be re-evaluated as a whole.
posted by bindr at 10:46 AM on January 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Honestly, the question should never be how smart do you have to be in order to raise a baby, it should always be how loving do you have to be, how compassionate, how caring...
posted by HuronBob at 12:54 PM on January 26, 2016

Loving and compassionate is all very well, but if you kill your child by poisoning them because you don't understand how to measure medicine, love doesn't mean a lot. So yes, the question of whether a parent is intellectually capable of taking care of a child is valid.
posted by tavella at 1:10 PM on January 26, 2016 [18 favorites]

I'd really encourage people to read the Jill Lepore piece in this week's New Yorker that mwhybark linked to. One of the virtues of Lepore's article is that unlike this NY Magazine piece it places family preservation in a historic context. This bit is worth quoting:

Even the best reporting, though, can’t help missing a feature of the story that can be seen only from the vantage of history. Child protection is trapped in a cycle of scandal and reform....

One feature of a scandal-reform cycle—“Kids die and heads roll,” she says—is a policy pendulum. “The pendulum has swung at least four or five times in the last forty years,” Mossaides says. It swings between family preservation (keeping kids with their family of origin) and removal (removing kids from their homes and severing parental rights so that the kids can be adopted). “We inevitably have cases where we don’t get the safety assessment right,” Mossaides says. “Then you have the high-profile death, and the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction.” When Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing, the governor’s office was boasting that the number of children in the care of the state was down to seven thousand: family preservation was the priority. Two years later, that number has risen to ninety-two hundred, a record. “Pull every kid” is what Mossaides suspects D.C.F. workers are being told. “The only way that happens is social workers have become afraid to leave kids with their parents.”

Rather than worrying about keeping families together or removing children from abusive families, Lepore argues we really should be investing more resources in preventative programs that teach people to be good parents.
posted by crazy with stars at 2:21 PM on January 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

You want the policy to be variable though. Every family is different and a rigid policy that allows no flexibility is as dangerous as a policy that rests all the power in one person's hands, such as a single caseworker's out judge's report.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:13 PM on January 26, 2016

I can't say I am even a tiny bit surprised that Dana's birth daddy is a useless abandoner, somehow.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:21 PM on January 26, 2016

Also would it not be cheaper for the state to have a home care assistant on call for the family who helped support parenting for medication, like packaging doses, reminding medication scheduled or accompanying the mother to medical visits, if that was seen as the risk? From an administrative outcome, how is taking a kid into fostercare cheaper or easier than providing limited support services to the family to make up for the deficits if they're not purposefully harming the child?

huh, now I want to go dig up industrialized country fostercare and family support service rates to see if this is a political philosophical difference, or just something that happens routinely with state child welfare involvement.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:30 PM on January 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sara reminds me so much of one of my students (I teach 6th grade) that it's difficult to read without superimposing an older version of her on the kid I see every day in class. I can't say that this student would make a good mother. But judging her ability to parent by the intellectual capacity she shows in school? That just seems ludicrous to me.

I definitely feel for the foster parents. Having a child basically from birth for two years, and believing that child will be yours? That's excruciating. I have friends who went through this with a five year old, who had been with them a year. It's an awful, awful experience.

It's an extremely well-written piece. Thanks for posting. And thanks for the New Yorker article linked upthread. I'd like to believe this kind of story would someday be resolved so that there is less damage done to kids and parents and families and society, but I'm not that optimistic.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:06 PM on January 26, 2016

Honestly, the question should never be how smart do you have to be in order to raise a baby, it should always be how loving do you have to be, how compassionate, how caring...

I know others have responded to this, but I wanted to address it as well and try to explain why I find ideas like this can even be actually harmful.

I absolutely DO agree that compassion and caring matter a great deal, and that you don't have to be a genius to raise a child, but the idea that it's just about how loving you are is really problematic because it handwaves away all sorts of really complex problems and just tells caretakers (parents, often but not exclusively mothers, and also teachers and stuff) that they just have to CARE enough and that any problems they have are the result of a failure on their part to care and not necessarily external issues. Telling parents/caretakers that they don't need (or deserve) any support is unhealthy at best for the kid as well as the adult. It sounds like this woman can be a perfectly acceptable parent with support she has, which is great! The vast majority of parents need support of SOME kind, and it's great when they have that! We should make sure every family has the support it needs! We also need to make sure we aren't conflating "having the resources necessary to be successful at parenting" with "being compassionate and caring."

I mean, I certainly agree that caring is a prerequisite for being a good parent! But this isn't a Carebears movie and the power of her maternal love will not, on its own, make up for abilities she doesn't have and parents who struggle to raise their kids for whatever reason (financial struggles, lack of experience with positive family relationships, developmental issues, illness, any number of things) do not necessarily suffer from a deficit of compassion.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:21 PM on January 27, 2016 [6 favorites]

Honestly, the question should never be how smart do you have to be in order to raise a baby, it should always be how loving do you have to be, how compassionate, how caring...

An ability to meet your child's basic needs has to be part of the equation. It doesn't matter how much someone loves their child if they are fundamentally unable to care for it. It would be great if there were more support for people like Sara to try to teach them the skills they need to parent their own children, but at the same time, I don't think it's clear that Sara actually does have the capacity to learn those skills. There has to be a point where it is reasonable to make a decision to remove the child, rather than leave them in a dangerous environment. In this case, they had Sara's parents to modify that question, but because of the past history there, with alcoholism and possible abuse, that wasn't exactly an obvious choice, either.
posted by jacquilynne at 3:23 PM on January 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The question however isn't about Sara's capacities (parenting) in isolation, but her abilities to parent with the accommodations she put into place, which included her family.

Sara wasn't given the opportunity to demonstrate her ability (or lack thereof) to parent, because she wasn't given the accommodations she needed and requested to do so. This refusal is a disability rights issue.

The hospital refused Sara's request to have her parents present overnight. They refused to provide her with a digital clock so she could tell the time. They refused to provide educational information in an accessible format, and then justified their decision to call protective services based on her ability to function without accommodations.

Protective services "tested" Sara's ability based on the physical act of swaddling a newborn, and the information the hospital provided. Then, once the child was removed, they refused to allow Sara to be coached during the family visits, and documented her mistakes.

This meant that Sara had no opportunity to learn, when learning is part of the process of becoming a new parent. (especially, now that most parents-to-be have limited access to infants before their own).

They didn't take a wait-and-see approach, they didn't monitor Sara in the home, they removed the baby within 24-48hrs of birth, citing her inability to parent based on a disability they refused to accommodate.

The debate surrounding Sara isn't about giving individuals with intellectual disabilities carte blanche over parenting, but giving individuals with a disability the appropriate resources and opportunity to demonstrate their (potential) competency. Sara wasn't given that chance, and based on the laws in many states, other women aren't given that opportunity either. That opportunity to demonstrate capacity to parent should exist regardless of disability.
posted by bindr at 9:25 AM on January 31, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure where I feel on the removal aspect - but I do want to note that it's really, really easy to accidentally kill a baby - by drowning, by mixing up formulas, etc. If they really thought she was completely incompetent, and if you allow them the ability to seize the baby, which I'm not sure I do, then the swift removal makes sense.

It's also worth noting that one of the things that made her parents unfit caretakers were sexual assault accusations against her father towards Sara.
posted by corb at 10:22 AM on January 31, 2016

I'd agree that they had no intention of ever letting her have the child back; one hour a week with no guidance or support, just someone sitting there timing her? They may have claimed that they only changed their minds at 7 months, but quite clearly the previous period was just a pro forma performance to get the stripping of parental rights past a judge. However, it's still not clear that she would still have been able to take custody with even the most supportive of coaching. Note that it is her mother that has custody of the child, not Sara; Sara just has visiting rights, essentially.

However, they knew from the start that the mother was there and willing to do this, so they should have looked there first. While the family had issues two decades ago, they appear to have been due to alcohol abuse, and after treatment the father has been sober 18 years. The sexual abuse allegations are described as entirely DCF's supposition, rather than based on anything Sara said to others, and I am *extremely* wary of any unsubstantiated sexual abuse claims from the 1990s. That was in the heyday of some really bad theories and practices of child sexual abuse investigation by agencies.

And given that the children were returned to the family after nine months, and there were no further issues, DCF had already determined that the family was safe to raise children; barring new evidence, they should have given custody of the baby to the grandparents immediately.
posted by tavella at 7:36 PM on January 31, 2016

« Older "A tour de force of dropped R's"   |   A few seconds closer to Midnight? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments