Just two days after a 19-year-old with intellectual disability gave birth, state officials took her newborn away in an act the federal government contends violated the woman’s civil rights.
A federal investigation concludes that the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families erred by placing the infant in foster care and seeking to terminate the parental rights of the mom, who is referred to by the pseudonym “Sara Gordon” in the report.
“DCF acted based on Ms. Gordon’s disability as well as on DCF’s discriminatory assumptions and stereotypes about her disability, without consideration of implementing appropriate family-based support services,” according to findings from a joint investigation by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services.
Gordon is now 21 and has mild intellectual disability, meaning that she has difficulty reading and following oral instructions, federal officials say. However, she lives with her parents who have indicated that they intend to support their daughter in caring for her child, known as Dana, and wish to become the child’s legal guardians.
Since Dana’s birth in November 2012, both experts who have evaluated Gordon and several community-based service providers have asserted that she is capable of parenting with appropriate supports, federal officials indicated. Nonetheless, federal investigators found that the state has provided minimal supports to Gordon and limited visits with her child to once a week.
In a 26-page report, federal officials said that Massachusetts’ handling of the Gordon case violated her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The findings call for the state to provide compensatory damages to Gordon, halt their efforts to terminate her parental rights and provide the young mother with appropriate supports and services so that she may pursue reunification with her daughter.
What’s more, investigators are calling for policy changes and training at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families to prevent similar discrimination on the basis of disability.
Federal officials say they may pursue litigation in the matter if the state does not voluntarily act to remedy the situation.
In a statement, Cayenne Isaksen, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, indicated the agency will be responding to the investigation.
“The primary responsibility of DCF is protecting children and ensuring that they are able to grow and thrive in a safe and nurturing environment. DCF believes it acted in the best interest of the child,” Isaksen said.