Disability bar to parenting unfair
- Category: Disability abuse
- Created: Sunday, 17 April 2016 19:28
- Written by Media Articles
MICHELLE de Hommel was taken aback when she was told by a politician she shouldn’t have had kids.
Another told her to find an old lady to play “grandmother”.
An elderly man asked her bluntly how she has sex. “I told him I know more positions than you ever had.”
The Kooweerup mother says she has suffered these indignities because she happens to have a disability – in her case, multiple schlerois.
“If my teenagers were yelling and running around in the back yard, people would think I couldn’t control them because I’m a woman in a wheelchair.”
There were struggles but she raised six children – the eldest is in Vietnam on a teaching scholarship. She says she is “proof positive” that parents with disabilities can be a success story.
However, there’s an over-representation of parents with a disability who, instead of being supported, have had their children removed. That is her biggest concern.
These broken families include “parents who have children taken from them for no reason at all”, she says.
With her own children grown up and time on her hands, de Hommel has helped found a statewide support and advocacy group Parents With A Disability.
One of the group’s aims is to beat what she says is discrimination against its members.
A member of Parents With A Disability says he and his partner had never contacted the Department of Human Services for help, out of fear that Child Protection would remove their children.
Another speaks of fighting court battles to reclaim a daughter who had been taken by Child Protection workers in the middle of the night.
The single mum, who has since been diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome, was wrongly characterised as mentally ill. Instead of getting help to manage Aspergers, she was found unfit to parent.
She currently looks after her son and has won endorsement of the County Court for her daughter to be returned to her. The DHS has defied the court orders.
“I don’t think I’ll get her back again. They’re saying she should stay where she is because she has bonded [with her guardians].”
In a 2011 report Forgotten Families commissioned by disability care provider Yooralla and disability rights advocate Valid, it was estimated a 40-60 per cent removal rate of children from parents with a disability.
“Research … reveals that parents with a disability can be good parents and removal of children based on disability alone is discriminatory and contrary to human rights principles,” the report states.
“Despite current research, many service providers and community members still hold stereotypical and discriminatory beliefs that parents with a disability are a danger to their children and will never be good parents.”
The report pointed to a lack of accessible training and services for parents with disabilities “that accurately reflect the actual needs of families”.
“There is a high representation of parents with disabilities in the courts and the child protection system,” the report states.
“However, families are not able to access advocacy services in a timely manner and from staff who are adequately trained and funded to provide assistance across all services and systems.”
An Office of the Public Advocate report about removal of children from parents with disabilities in December 2013 called for changes to the Family Law Act to state that disability is not “per se” a barrier to parenting.
There was also a state obligation to provide these families with adequate support, it states.
What needs to change is the state’s attitude, de Hommel says.
More children should have the right to grow up in their original family unit, rather than removed into state care, foster care or to their extended family such as grandparents.
The result is intact family units and happier, better-adjusted children, she says.
De Hommel says little has improved since the 2011 report called for more accessible training and services for parents with disabilities – or even since her own battles with care providers since the 1980s.
She was diagnosed with multiple schlerosis at 21, soon after the birth of her first child in 1987.
She was offered family day care and granted three hours a week of home help. But there were limits to the help: the carer was allowed to cook for de Hommel but not for de Hommel’s children.
She says she was denied her request for two hours a week of extra home help, such as cooking for her children.
Her case manager unhelpfully advised her then-husband, a full-time shiftworker, could cook all her daily meals, get the children up at 4am to dress them and get the baby to her before he left for work.
Despite his workplace “bending over backwards” to help, her husband suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned from work.
This forced the family onto welfare dependency and years living in a condemned DHS-owned house.
Instead of granting extra home help, her case manager told her to wean her baby off breastfeeding and send the child to day care.
“That’s when I had a flare-up (of MS). I was breastfeeding on the floor and I had five other kids.
“I said I just need assistance with the younger ones. They said: ‘There’s always foster care.’”
De Hommel says she had to bend rules and hunt further resources to get transport for herself and her children to school from public-transport starved Kooweerup and to get food cooked for her children.
Parents With A Disability, the only such support group in the state, is attracting parents from as far away as Moe.
It is being supported by Melbourne-based Independent Disability Services.
De Hommel says the volunteer group will set up a phone information line to help parents learn what supports are out there.
A DHS spokesman said, “a range of risk factors and parental characteristics” are looked at when assessing each parent’s capacity.
He said training had been provided to child protection workers across the state to support parents with a disability involved with child protection.
“When a child is reported to Child Protection and their parent is known to have a disability, Child Protection will consult with Disability Services to find out if the parent is a registered client, and discuss the best way to support them.”
He said $128 million had been provided over four years to strengthen Child FIRST, Cradle to Kinder and Stronger Families programs for vulnerable children and their families.