Using Disability Justice to Reimagine Family Regulation Systems

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Advocates call for reform of family regulation systems to achieve fairer outcomes for parents with disabilities.

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A mother in New York was in the middle of divorcing her violent husband and caring for her two young children when she heard from the state’s child services agency.

The mother explained that, while the children were well taken care of, she struggled to balance her new single parent responsibilities and asked the child services caseworker for support. To the mother’s relief, the caseworker offered to get her help. But the very next day that caseworker filed a petition to terminate the mother’s parental rights—in large part because the child services agency identified the mother as having a disability.

In a recent article on the family regulation system, Sarah H. Lorr of Brooklyn Law School and the mother in this story (writing under the assumed name of L. Frunel) explain how parents with disabilities experience the child welfare structure. Lorr and Frunel argue that the system as it stands fails parents living with disabilities. They articulate specific reforms needed to correct the current failure of the system to understand and support these individuals.

Parents who family agencies identify as having a disability are automatically labeled as unfit to parent even when that is not the case, Lorr and Frunel explain. Even more disturbingly, the family agency can essentially invent a disability for the parent in question, even when that parent has not been diagnosed with a disability. Lorr and Frunel highlight two prominent forces—ableism and racism—that permeate family regulation systems and enforce harmful stereotypes about parents of color with disabilities in family courts.

As it exists now, the public family regulation system shirks a support-first mode of operation and instead uses a punitive-forward approach for parents living with disabilities, Lorr and Frunel contend. They explain that when parents with disabilities disclose their disability, the family regulation system responds by penalizing them for showing behaviors arising from their disabilities, rather than offering support services.

According to Lorr and Frunel, “the current system is untenable.”

Lorr and Frunel argue that the wrongful categorization of individuals with disabilities as being unqualified for parenthood lies at the center of decisions arising out of the family regulation system. Specifically, Lorr and Frunel flag the family regulation system’s use of a “medical model,” which understands disability to be solely based on an individual’s diagnosed medical problem, as a harmful conceptual construction.

Instead, Lorr and Frunel suggest that policymakers should understand disability through a “social model,” which appreciates disability as a social construction. Lorr and Frunel further explain that the “social model” is superior to the “medical model” because it acknowledges the significant obstacles that individuals with non-standard bodies face because of societal norms.

According to Lorr and Frunel, shifting the family regulation system away from the “medical model” would discourage caseworkers from viewing disability as an “individual pathology” and a kind of personal failure. Instead, they propose that policymakers recognize the individuality of each person, including the fact that individuals inhabit multiple identities—across race, sexuality, gender, religion, and class, among others—that impact how people experience their environments.

The authors explain that regulators could take affirmative steps to accommodate parents living with disabilities. Lorr and Frunel recommend three strategies to reform the family regulation system.

First, Lorr and Frunel argue that access to legal representation should be made available to parents at the pre-petition stage so that they can take preventative measures, potentially reducing the need for the family regulation system altogether. Lorr and Frunel maintain that pretrial representation would decrease the risk that parents misunderstand the stakes of the agency’s investigation.

Second, Lorr and Frunel recommend requiring a Mirandalike warning to parents at the beginning of a family regulation investigation. This warning would alert parents of their right to an attorney and compel clear communication from state agents.

Finally, Lorr and Frunel propose the formation of an independent entity to handle parents’ complaints about caseworkers and the family regulation system. Lorr and Frunel envision this independent review board as not only creating an avenue for the oversight of family agencies, but also having the power to administer disciplinary action when necessary. Lorr and Frunel predict that a regulatory entity such as this would promote transparency and accountability within the public child welfare system.

Lorr and Frunel’s reimagination of family regulation would place parents’ experiences at the center of the system, appreciate parents with disabilities as individual persons, and recognize the importance of offering meaningful support. Ultimately, Lorr and Frunel visualize a regulatory system built on respect for all parents and children.