HARTFORD – The federal district court in Connecticut has dismissed a disability discrimination case brought by two parents whose children were removed from their care by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. In a December 23 decision, the court ruled that parents who claim the state violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) when terminating their parental rights must sue in state court, even when the state courts refuse to consider those allegations.
In 2005 and 2006, Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) seized Joseph Watley and Karin Hasemann’s children shortly after birth. DCF alleged that Hasemann and Watley each had a psychiatric disability that precluded their abilities to parent and asked the state courts to permanently terminate their parental relationship to the children. While the court cases were pending, state law required DCF to provide Hasemann and Watley with services to remedy whatever parental shortcomings DCF alleged them to have. Yet during the proceedings, Watley and Hasemann repeatedly told the courts that DCF was denying them accommodations for their perceived disabilities, and was therefore violating their rights under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They told the courts that although DCF was attempting to terminate their parental rights based on their perceived disabilities, DCF was not tailoring the services it gave them to those disabilities. The state courts refused to hear their ADA claims.
After the state court cases ended, the pair sued DCF and some DCF officials in federal court, alleging ADA violations. Three years after DCF asked the court to dismiss the suit, the court did so yesterday.
“This decision is a blow to our clients and to parents with disabilities, and my heart goes out to Ms. Hasemann and Mr. Watley,” said ACLU of Connecticut legal director Dan Barrett, who represents the pair along with ACLU of Connecticut staff attorney Elana Bildner and Hartford attorney Andrew O’Toole. “With this decision, the federal court has effectively decided that there is no way for parents with disabilities, real or perceived by the government, to vindicate their federal anti-discrimination rights. People with disabilities should be able to be parents, 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.”
Barrett and his clients are studying the decision and considering whether to appeal.