In this case, we are asking the federal courts to recognize that if DCF violates a parent's rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, those parents have a right to sue in federal court.
In 2005 and 2006, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) seized Joseph Watley and Karin Hasemann’s children at birth directly from the hospital, based on a theory known as “predictive neglect.” Karin and Joey’s children had not been harmed, abused, or neglected. DCF claimed that Karin and Joey each had a psychiatric disability that made them unable to parent, and it asked the state courts to permanently terminate their parental relationship to their children.
Both the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Rehabilitation Act protect people with disabilities from discrimination by state agencies like DCF. Under those statutes, if the state was attempting to terminate Karin and Joey’s parental rights based on their perceived disabilities, then the state was required to account for those disabilities and ensure that their rights to parent were not being taken away due a disability.
But as Karin and Joey told the state courts, DCF repeatedly refused to tailor its mandatory parenting services to their disabilities, thus setting them up to fail. DCF denied Karin and Joey the chance to try to parent their children with support, assistance from their family (including from an immediate family member who was already approved to foster children), and other meaningful help. DCF did not even have procedures or formal training about its responsibilities to accommodate people with disabilities, with one social worker even telling Joey and Karin, incorrectly, that federal anti-discrimination law only applied to protect DCF’s employees.
Connecticut’s state courts refused to consider Karin and Joey’s arguments that federal anti-discrimination law applies to DCF’s services, so in 2016, the pair sued in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. On December 23, 2019, the federal court dismissed the case, ruling that parents who claim the state violated federal anti-discrimination law when terminating their parental rights can only raise those arguments in state court, even when the state courts refuse to consider them. On January 22, 2020, Karin and Joey, represented by the ACLU of Connecticut, appealed the district court’s decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
People with disabilities should be able to parent, including with help if they need it. The ADA forbids discrimination against people with disabilities, including parents, and state and federal courts should not be able to wash their hands of their responsibilities to uphold it.