Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Fundamental Parent Rights of the Mentally Disabled Can Be Terminated

Are we really having this debate? Mentally disabled parents. Healthy newborn. Concerned grandparents. Understaffed and overworked state agency employees. Political correctness. Is this a recipe for anything other than disaster?

Yes, the mentally disabled should and do have rights. I’m just not sure they include the right to toss a newborn baby around like a pigskin and shake him like a Polaroid picture. Perhaps if they’d had enough sense to equip tiny dancer with some protective gear, none of this would have happened. Then again, I don’t think they make football helmets and shoulder pads in size 0- 3 months.

R.I.P. Baby Seth MosleyBaby Seth Mosley is dead. His mentally disabled parents, Richard and Giovanna Mosley, and their houseguest, Daniel Reilly, are behind bars, charged with second-degree murder and first-degree child abuse resulting in death. Jesse Stacy, the child’s maternal grandfather, and Denise Joseph, his paternal grandmother -- the only characters who appear to possess a lick of sense in this horror story -- wanted social services to intervene from day one and continued to press that agency and Child Protective Services for more oversight. Problem is, social services claims their hands are tied in such situations because state agencies must respect "fundamental parent rights," even if the subject parents are mentally disabled.

Umm. Yah. Right. Does that mean the Free State must implicitly compromise the safety of helpless newborns and do no more than periodic oversight until a mentally disabled parent actually requests help or a concerned citizen lodges a complaint of abuse and neglect?

Did somebody forget to draw the line here?

According to Lauren Young, Director of Litigation for the Maryland Disability Law Center, yes. "It shouldn’t be assumed that having a disability and inability to parent are things that co-exist. There has to be a vigilant analysis, not focusing on disability but the parent’s conduct that needs to be examined. They have rights to have families, too."

Well, what about when the parent in question is mentally disabled, say mildly retarded, ADD, and schizoaffective? Wouldn’t one or two surprise home inspections reveal such a person’s inability to effectively parent? I mean, for crying out loud, we’re talking about a mother who has never held a job, is unable to do simple tasks like write a check, and didn’t even know she was pregnant until prodded by a relative. The father, a brain-damaged car accident victim prone to violent outbursts, is likely similarly disabled.

Assistant State’s Attorney Bruce M. Smith so much as admitted the deficiencies of the two state agencies charged with Seth’s care. They couldn’t obtain regular oversight of the situation precisely because of the father’s violent outbursts and, according to the local rag, "an inability to reach the family for four weeks."

Ohhhhkaaay. That about sums everything up for me.

As soon as state employees knew or should have known they did not have adequate oversight of little Seth Mosley, they should have filed court papers to determine whether he was a child in need of assistance. A court proceeding would have given the grandparents a chance to testify, and perhaps set the ball in motion to terminate parental rights.

A 2002 decision from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals,
In re Adoption/Guardianship No. 36
, does not require automatic deference to fundamental parent rights of the mentally disabled. In that case, numerous instances of discrimination against Mr. F, the mentally disabled parent, were readily apparent. The court also discounted testimony from the State’s expert witness. Tests to measure intelligence quotient and adaptability levels were not conducted due to "serious intellectual impairment." A social worker observing the home testified Mr. F could learn necessary parenting skills. The "clear and convincing evidence" needed to terminate parental rights never materialized. Ultimately, the court reinstated Mr. F's parental rights because social services never provided programs tailored to his particular needs. The court did not, however, go so far as to reinstate his right to custody. Notably, Judges Harrell, Raker, and Wilner issued a scathing dissenting opinion.

Contrast this decision with the one issued by the same court in 2006, In re Adoption/Guardianship of Harold H. The boy’s mother, Mojisola A., was severely brain damaged by a medical condition leaving her with an IQ in the "mentally retarded range." She exhibited obvious cognitive impairment, inability to make judgments for her own care, and could not work. Coupled with her long-term diagnosis, these factors clearly justified termination of Ms. A.’s parental rights. So, too, might have been the outcome for Seth Mosley had anyone recognized the need for immediate court intervention.

It’s a shame, really, Seth’s grandparents were so ill informed. Ironically, his grandmother works in a division of the office of the public defender. Perhaps some advocacy group should make it their mission to disseminate information about third party rights in situations of suspected child abuse or parental mental impairment. Certainly, citizens armed with such helpful information would not rely solely upon government to gain control of an obvious train wreck.

Unfortunately for Baby Seth Mosley, this train has already left the station.