Is a 19 year old woman with a developmental disability capable of raising her own baby? That turns out to be a complicated question, and the answer depends on who you ask. The cover story in this week’s New York Magazine, “Who Knows Best,” by Lisa Miller explores the controversial and emotional issue of “how smart do you need to be to raise a child?” Miller’s article is based on the real-life story of Sara Gordon, a 19 year old with a “borderline” IQ of “around 70.” Sara has been portrayed as “poor, white and single, living with her parents and still in school.” According to Sara, the baby’s father is a “low life scumbag” who denied responsibility and disappeared. Sara’s baby daughter, Dana, was clearly an accidental pregnancy, not based on any relationship or love.
Dana’s life had a tragic beginning, but her situation immediately got worse. Although Sara wanted to mother her infant, AND her parents were willing to help care for the child while Sara was in school, Dana was nevertheless removed from her biological family by Child Protection Services and put in foster care. The hospital and medical staff where Dana was born believed (not without good reasons) that her life could be at risk. In their opinion, Sara behaved too much like a child herself to properly feed and diaper her infant daughter; nor did hospital staff feel confident that Sara could always handle her baby safely. At 11 days old, over the protests of her biological mother and grandparents, Dana was placed in the care of a middle-aged couple—Mennonites, who had already raised two adopted sons and were currently already caring for newborn Dana’s 1 year old, paternal half-brother. The adoptive couple had always yearned for a daughter.
After 7 months, Children’s Services decided Dana Gordon would be better off adopted by the Mennonite couple than being reunited with her own mother. Although Sara had stayed in school, participated in individual psychotherapy and parenting classes where she practiced diapering baby dolls and even passed a CPR course on her own initiative, the DCF felt that her daughter’s best interests were served by the adoptive parents. Sara fought bravely to get her daughter back, writing emails that stated: “Dana was stolen from me. I want Dana to live with my parents and me. I have a right to raise my daughter… I have done nothing wrong… I want her safe.” After two years, in March 2015, a judge reunited Dana with her biological mother and granted guardianship of the child to her grandparents. (Duh!) Since when do American families have to prove their ability to raise their own children before they even leave the hospital? How did the biological grandparents, who were clearly next of kin, get passed over by Child Protection Services in favor of strangers who were looking for a girl? How many people’s civil rights were trampled in this case? How many people experienced unnecessary suffering?
Why, oh why, couldn’t a judge have made the decision in favor of the biological family that wanted to raise their little girl from the very beginning? Sara wanted to keep her daughter, and the grandparents were willing to help raise her. Forget for a moment the rights of people with disabilities (which are still NOT respected or protected) despite the passage of ADA laws. In no way did the so-called childcare experts follow the law. They did not consider Sara’s strong support network, her desire to live (as much as possible) like everyone else, not to mention the continuous failure on the part of social services to accommodate her disability. What about the irreparable harm suffered by the child whose maternal bond was disrupted TWICE in a tug of war? Both the biological and adoptive families have suffered heartbreaking losses, but the baby—who is supposed to be society’s main concern—has suffered the most.
I have thought long and hard about whether my own daughter with disabilities should have a child someday. Of course, my Sarah is 25, and understands the importance of birth control. Also drilled into her is the idea that she MUST be able to take care of herself independently first. Finding and maintaining a job and engaging in a long term relationship with a capable partner must also precede the decision to have children. But aren’t these the same lessons most mothers teach their neurotypical daughters? Mothers of daughters with disabilities just have to work harder. Lessons have to be repeated, reviewed, broken into small pieces and interwoven with life experiences. So what if disabled young women have to work harder to be competent mothers? Shouldn’t motivation and willingness to put in extra effort be rewarded and not punished?
The article, “Who Knows Best,” was especially painful for me because of the similarities between Sara Gordon and my own daughter, who also has a less than dazzling IQ score. The article states that Sara “can read, but it’s a chore and something she prefers not to do.” The same can be said of my Sarah. (So what! Since when did a dislike of reading disqualify anyone from being a parent?) Thirty seven states STILL have laws that make a disability reason enough to terminate a person’s parental rights. According to the article, “people with all types of disabilities report losing custody of their children with ‘alarming frequency,’” at a rate as high as 80% for parents with intellectual disabilities. The underlying question has civil rights undertones; it isn’t WHETHER Sara CAN be a good enough mother, but “should she have an opportunity to try?”
No blanket moral judgments can be rendered in response to this issue. I’m not sure whether my daughter SHOULD be a mother. But I AM sure that IF she decides to be a mother, she will NOT make that decision with no father involved or without able grandparents in the picture. I’m equally sure that if Henry and I are still breathing, no one will take our grandchild away to foster care. What I’m NOT sure about is whether our society will one day support and accommodate parents with learning differences. We need to evolve beyond the moral laziness of knee jerk reactions, like placing children in foster care (often disastrous arrangements). I know I’m too old and tired from being the parent of a special needs child to raise a grandchild and do all the heavy lifting. Maybe my Sarah will be lucky and find in-laws who are young and / or have lots of resources.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. We MUST build that village so that ALL different kinds of families can thrive instead of being devalued and torn apart.