April 02, 2019

Can Parents Lose Custody Simply Because They Are Disabled?

Robyn Powell

Woman holding babyIn 2009 Kaney O’Neill, a veteran and quadriplegic mother, faced an unexpected battle when her former boyfriend filed for custody of their ten-week-old son, alleging that O’Neill was “not a fit and proper person” to care for their son and that her disability “greatly limits her ability to care for the minor, or even wake up if the minor is distressed” (Chicago Tribune, December 20, 2009, tinyurl.com/l6jqkss). Refuting this allegation, O’Neill demonstrated her ability to care for their son. Indeed, she had prepared for motherhood by working with an occupational therapy program for expectant mothers and parents, adapting her house for parenting, securing adapted baby care equipment, and using personal assistants to help her as needed (The Legal Program, November 23, 2011, tinyurl.com/lzd5wxr). Illustrating the bias that pervades the family law system, an attorney who was not affiliated with the case remarked, “Certainly, I sympathize with the mom, but assuming both parties are equal (in other respects), isn’t the child obviously better off with the father?” This attorney, who has specialized in divorce and custody cases for more than 40 years, said that O’Neill “would likely not be able to teach her son to write, paint, or play ball.” The attorney asked a news reporter, “What’s the effect on the child—feeling sorry for the mother and becoming the parent?”

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