Disability Rights or Child Welfare?


By Mark E. Smith


They say that there’s always two sides to every story, but aren’t the facts still the facts? This is one of those cases – surrounding a parent with a disability, no less.


“A disabled mother fights again for right to raise her child,” is the headline of a circulating news story this week, And, if you’re a parent with a disability like I am, that headline is sure to capture your attention, conjuring natural thoughts of, “You mean someone, presumably a court, isn’t allowing a mother to raise her child because the mother has a disability?”


Then, the opening of the article confirms such a thought:


The first time Sabreena Westphal went to court to try to keep her children, she became a celebrity. Suffering from cerebral palsy and unable to walk or fully use her arms, she was still determined to care for her two young sons. Disabled parents and advocates rallied behind the young woman with the pixie haircut and impish smile who, at the time nearly 20 years ago, went by the name Tiffany Callo. She was the subject of a book, “A Mother’s Touch: The Tiffany Callo Story.” She rode in a limousine to an appearance on “Donahue.”

But the book didn’t come with a happy ending. Her little boys were adopted and taken far from her San Jose home.

Five years ago, she became pregnant again. And now she’s back in court.This time, Westphal, 40, is trying to prevent her 5-year-old daughter from being adopted by a couple in San Joaquin County. This time, she has the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 on her side and a political landscape that has changed substantially for disabled Americans.

As if those details aren’t alarming enough, it turns out the Westphal and the father of the 5-year-old have had an additional streak of bad luck, with Westphal having been hit by a car in her power wheelchair, and her child’s father being hospitalized for lupus.Surely, Westphal sounds like a mother with the world against her.

However, as one learns more of the story, another side comes out, one generated more by facts from social workers, courts, and family members than by a heavily-spun disability rights story: Westphal’s disability clearly isn’t the reason why her kids have been taken away. In fact, as reported, Westphal has a 20-year history dating back to drug use, relationship volatilities, a lack of developing a healthy support system, accusations of child abuse, passing her children off to neighbors and family members, and habitually failing to comply with the standards that social workers put in place to care for her children.

Line up Westphal, the disability-rights activists, and the media spinning the story, and it becomes obvious that they’re all overlooking the most important part of the issue: The 5-year-old child’s welfare.In fact, this story isn’t about disability or the ADA at all; rather, this is a story about a child whose needs were reportedly neglected by her parents, including a mother who failed to provide adequate support for all three of her children at different times.

I appreciate that Westphal wants her child back, using disability rights as a soapbox; however, is that really what’s best for the child?

Based on what I’ve read, of course not. The 5-year-old needs a stable, safe, functional, caring home, and, disability or not, Westphal has reportedly failed to meet those obligations, arguably through making poor decisions over and over again.

Beyond my own fatherhood, I’ve known many couples with disabilities raising children, where social workers have never entered the picture. And, there’s no secret to the success of these parents – they simply provide stable, safe, nurturing, responsible homes, where the child’s needs come before their own. These are principals that all appropriate parents follow, regardless of disability.

There’s no doubt that the Westphal story is ultimately sad all the way around, where everyone in the story seems on the razor’s edge of life. However, the real tragedy is the experience of the child. Westphal, by all accounts, has been given chance after chance to turn her life around, and has failed to do so. Yet, the child never had a chance, born into a reported unfit home, shuffled to neighbors and family, neglected by her parents, never to know the parental bonding, trust, and stability that every child requires.

And, that’s where I, as a parent, believe that this case comes into a clear, concise perspective: It’s not about disability rights in the least. Instead, it’s a case exclusively about responsible parties – family, social workers, and the courts – determining what’s best for a child.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

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