What makes someone fit to parent? Photo: Stocksy
A couple in Canada was caught in a media storm recently when local social services issued a permit to remove their newborn son from their care.
After a three-week battle, the parents, both living with cerebral palsy, successfully retained sole custody. Naturally, what followed was a series of feel good news headlines like 'Disabled parents allowed to keep newborn son'.
It was as if the broader community were giving themselves a congratulatory pat on the back for not depriving an emotionally, intellectually well-adjusted and loving couple of a fundamental right. However, beyond this story lies the thousands that go untold and which have far more devastating outcomes.
In Australia, Rebecca*, who has a mild intellectual disability, was still pregnant with her first child when she was reported to child protective services. This may sound like a bizarre scenario, but it's an all too prevalent one among people with disabilities. One in five Australians has some form of disability and parents (usually mothers) with disabilities are up to ten times more likely to lose custody of their children.
"Unfortunately there are thousands of evidence-based examples of women with disabilities having their child removed from them at birth or shortly after by child protection," explains Carolyn Frohmader, the executive director of Women with Disabilities Australia.
Along with the forced removal of children from their biological parents, people with a wide array of disabilities are having forced sterilisations, abortions and being denied access to adoption.
The forced, involuntary or coerced sterilisation of people with disability, particularly women and girls, continues to occur in Australia. The practice, which courts can allow if it is considered to be in the individual's best interest and if the individual is deemed unable to consent, has been condemned by the United Nations and other international human rights organisations.
Yet, a 2013 federal government senate committee advised against outlawing the practice, instead recommending a tightening of regulations.
At the time submissions were being made to the committee, disability activist Stella Young told Fairfax Media the sterilisation of disabled people "only happens to women", and that this made it clear it was to do with a woman's sexuality. "For women with a disability it's seen [that] sexual impulses need to be regulated."
Furthermore, an interagency statement from the United Nations said in 2014 "Women with intellectual disabilities are often treated as if they have no control, or should have no control, over their sexual and reproductive choices".
Frohmader says she has encountered a number of women who were sterilised without their consent. In one instance, she says, an otherwise healthy girl with a vision impairment was sterilised at the age of seven. As an adult, she went on to marry and have a successful career.
It is unknown exactly how many women undergo forced sterilisation in Australia each year.
But Matthew Bowden, from the co-chief executive of People with Disabilities Australia, says "eugenics is alive and well".
On several occasions, his organisation has been called to intervene when they have been notified of an intent to sterilise without the individual's consent.
"It's very much to the agenda of family and caregivers," Bowden adds.
It remains unknown who reported Rebecca to the authorities, but what followed was a series of cognitive tests, invasive home assessments and months of uncertainty over the custody of her child.
"They said we had to go back to my family member's house who would supervise us 24/7," she says.
Rebecca gave birth to a healthy girl. She and her partner lived with a relative for almost a year while the authorities decided if she and her partner (who also has an intellectual disability) would be allowed to keep their daughter. This is not an uncommon experience, particularly for parents with intellectual disabilities.
Rebecca is now a member of Reinforce and Powerful Parenting, a self-advocacy group that allows parents with disabilities who have lost custody of their children to connect with one another.
"Some of the stories you hear are just awful. They're more awful than mine," she says.
The group's goal is to encourage child protection authorities to reconsider how they approach the issue of disabled parenting, especially as many of the children removed from their home end up in foster care.
Rebecca believes there needs to be better training for case workers and more accessible support for parents.
"It can be done. People with disabilities can learn how to parent," she says.
Through her advocacy work, Rebecca has observed that children will often return to their disabled parent during adolescence. However, by this stage the child may have been exposed to an emotionally turbulent upbringing and the parent has inadequate support and skills to care for the maturing teenager.
"We've seen one out of control teen return to her mum, with no support to her mother."
Rebecca herself chose to give up custody of her daughter Emily* to a close relative. Emily is now in primary school and is an advanced learner. Rebecca has supervised visits that allow her to see her daughter for just four hours each fortnight.
For Rebecca, the decision to give up custody was bitter-sweet. She knows that her decision has enabled her daughter to have a quality of life she never had, but she feels let down by a system that left her with few other options.
According to Frohmader, we desperately need widespread change at a federal level.
"It is clear that this is a shameful blight on Australia because it is something that happens all the time," she says. "Our standards should be set much higher. We are a wealthy country, we do have the infrastructure and resources compared to a developing nation."
We currently have a system that puts disabled parents under a microscope and pounces at the first sign of uncertainty or struggle, rather than acknowledging their abilities and providing access to much-needed services
As I conclude my interview with Carolyn Frohmader, she leaves me with a lingering question: "What does 'fit to parent' really mean?"
*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals