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Bill to protect custody rights of parents with disabilities

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 | 9:13 p.m. CST; updated 11:41 a.m. CST, Thursday, March 3, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Parents with disabilities will no longer have to worry about their disabilities costing them custody of their kids if several lawmakers have their way.

Lawmakers discussed a bill Wednesday that will prevent the state Department of Social Services from taking children from homes solely because a parent has a disability. It will also require the courts to prove a disability has a direct negative impact on a child before taking away the parent's custody rights.

Several parents with disabilities testified in support of the bill Wednesday. The parents said people with disabilities are qualified to be parents and should not live in fear of losing their children.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Thomas Long, R-Battlefield, said the bill comes on the heels of cases in which some parents with disabilities lost their children unfairly. He said two parents recently lost custody of their daughter for 57 days because they were blind.

"I cannot imagine another person with a disability having to not know where their child is," said Debbie Wunder, a supporter of the bill. "I do not want another family to go through this heartache."

Wunder said she and her husband, who are both blind, raised four children to be successful.

"The thing I treasure most is being a mother," she said.

While no one spoke in opposition to the bill, some questions were raised during the hearing.

Many of the bill supporters said they used special technology to help them raise their children. However, the technologies are often too expensive for many people to purchase.

Wunder said she uses Braille labels to differentiate between different medicines and foods. Many of the witnesses used special readers that allowed them to type in braille in order to give their testimonies.

Lawmakers on the committee said they supported the bill and were appalled that parents were losing their children because of a disability.

"This [bill] is long overdue," said Rep. Eileen McGeoghegan, D-St. Louis County.

Long said his bill would take some of the current discretion out of family law when it comes to disabilities.

"We are moving the bias over," he said.

Members of the committee also said they would pursue other reforms for people with disabilities, including establishing a Disability Awareness Month.

"We have a larger goal of starting a conversation," said Rep. Keith Frederick, R-Rolla.

The committee will vote on the bill Monday at its next executive session.


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