Bill protects parents with disabilities in custody cases    

Sam Doran/SHNS photo"Being blind doesn't keep someone from hugging their child, teaching good morals, helping with homework or chasing away monsters under the bed," said Disability Policy Consortium advocate Harry Weissman. 

Parents with disabilities delivered emotional testimony to lawmakers, urging passage of a bill they said would protect them from discrimination in child custody cases.

Bills filed by Sen. Joan Lovely and Rep. Kay Khan (S 983, H 1487) would prohibit a parent's disability from being used as a negative factor in custody matters without a written, evidence-based finding from a court showing "the nexus between the parent's disability, or its manifestations, and harm to the child," and whether that harm could be prevented with adaptive equipment or supportive services.

Lovely told the Judiciary Committee Tuesday that despite programs that exist to support them and other advances, parents with disabilities still face biases and misconceptions, including in the court system. The Salem Democrat said her bill would ensure that a disability is not the sole factor in a custody decision.

"I strongly believe that capable parents with disabilities should not be denied the opportunity to parent their children, and that children should not be denied the opportunity to grow up with their parents," she said.

Harry Weissman of the Disability Policy Consortium said parents with disabilities lose custody at "alarming rates" though they are just as likely to be capable parents as those without disabilities. He said 6.2 percent of parents in the United States have disabilities, but their children make up 19 percent of the foster care system.

"Being blind doesn't keep someone from hugging their child, teaching good morals, helping with homework or chasing away monsters under the bed," he said.

A Braintree woman who uses a motorized wheelchair and a ventilator said she is now safe and has full custody of her 9-year-old daughter after escaping a domestic violence situation.

When she was trying to leave her relationship, the woman said, she developed an emergency plan that involved fleeing to Colorado, one of 19 states that has passed similar legislation, so that she'd know her parental rights would be preserved. Such a move, away from her Massachusetts-based health insurance, would have jeopardized her ability to retain coverage for her complex medical needs, she said.

The woman told lawmakers she needs the bill passed to ensure she'll keep custody of her daughter.

"Leaving domestic violence shouldn't be this hard, but women with disabilities are significantly more likely than those without disabilities to stay in bad marriages for fear of losing their children," she said.

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