Un­der new leg­is­la­tion, proof of child-care abil­i­ties shifts for blind par­ents

Cecil Whig - - LOCAL & REGIONAL - By LEO TRAUB

Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

— At just past 11 a.m. on a Thurs­day, Melissa Ric­cobono sits at her com­puter while her 3-year-old daugh­ter, El­iz­a­beth, plays on the floor next to her with a pil­low and some toys.

Us­ing a Fo­cus 14 Blue key­board with Braille dis­play and text-to-speech read­out, Ric­cobono scrolls through her con­tacts, search­ing for a friend’s email ad­dress. Sud­denly, seem­ingly un­prompted, she turns to her daugh­ter and says, “El­iz­a­beth, I think your bus is here.”

Sure enough, idling in the street out­side their Bal­ti­more home is a big yel­low bus, wait­ing to take El­iz­a­beth to a city nurs­ery school for blind chil­dren.

Reluc­tantly, El­iz­a­beth fin­ishes her game and stands up. Ric­cobono helps her daugh­ter into her coat and school back­pack, and the pair move to the front door, col­lect­ing their long white canes from the um­brella stand in the corner.

The rum­bling sound of the bus was sub­tle, nearly im­per­cep­ti­ble. Did Ric­cobono, a woman blind since birth, use some sort of su­per­hero­like height­ened sense to hear it pull up out­side?

Sen­si­tive though Ric­cobono’s hear­ing might be, she is a par­ent, and at just past 11 a.m. on Thurs­days, she knows to ex­pect her daugh­ter’s school bus.

These sorts of as­sump­tions about blind­ness are com­mon, said Sharon Maneki, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land chap­ter of ad­vo­cacy and sup­port or­ga­ni­za­tion Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind.

Sighted peo­ple, even court­room judges, of­ten re­sort to “what ifs” in eval­u­at­ing blind peo­ple’s parenting abil­i­ties, she said.

Un­der a bill passed by the Mary­land leg­is­la­ture on the

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last day of ses­sion, in cases as­sess­ing par­ents’ abil­ity to care for their chil­dren, judges and claimants will need to fol­low new pro­ce­dures be­fore in­tro­duc­ing a per­son’s dis­abil­ity in court. Orig­i­nally writ­ten for blind­ness, the bill was later amended to in­clude all dis­abil­i­ties, phys­i­cal or men­tal, and cov­ers only pri­vate cases that don’t in­volve pub­lic agen­cies, such as cus­tody or visi­ta­tion, as well as adop­tion or guardian­ship cases.

“The bill pro­vides a lot more pro­tec­tions for dis­abled par­ents that we’ve never had be­fore,” said Ric­cobono.

Ric­cobono and her hus­band, Mark, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind, as well as Maneki and other ad­vo­cates, have spent years work­ing to cre­ate le­gal par­ity for blind peo­ple. This leg­is­la­tion is an im­por­tant step in pro­tect­ing the blind from be­ing pre-judged for their dis­abil­ity, she said.

“As a blind per­son, you’re al­ways think­ing, what if this (sit­u­a­tion) is blamed on my blind­ness?” said Chris Danielsen, di­rec­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions for the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind. A change in the bur­den

of proof One of the bill’s key pro­vi­sions is plac­ing the bur­den of proof on the per­son mak­ing a le­gal claim against a dis­abled par­ent, Maneki said. In past cases, blind peo­ple were re­quired to prove that they were ca­pa­ble of car­ing for a child, she said.

“This has been a long­stand­ing prob­lem that we’ve had,” Maneki said.

In 2007, Michael Bullis was sort­ing through a dif­fi­cult di­vorce and cus­tody pro­ceed­ings over his then-5year-old daugh­ter, Ju­lianna. A Bal­ti­more County court had ruled Bullis, a blind man, was not fit to be left with Ju­lianna with­out su­per­vi­sion. So for al­most two years, Bullis said, he only saw his daugh­ter in pub­lic places with ei­ther his exwife or one of her par­ents there.

“Need­less to say, it was pretty hu­mil­i­at­ing,” he said.

What both­ered him the most, Bullis said, was that the court had de­ter­mined his visi­ta­tion rights based on a prej­u­diced as­sump­tion: that he was not a ca­pa­ble par­ent be­cause he was blind.

“They say things such as, ‘The blind per­son can’t do any­thing and they’ve never been able to do it,’ even though they’ve been do­ing it for years,” Maneki said.

He fought the de­ci­sion in court, and the judge called for so­cial ser­vices to con­duct a home study to de­ter­mine whether Bullis could pro­vide ap­pro­pri­ate care for his daugh­ter.

Af­ter per­form­ing the study, the so­cial ser­vices case­worker said he would have ap­proved the home for a sighted par­ent, Bullis said, but he was hes­i­tant to clear it for a blind per­son. So Bullis spent the next hour ad­dress­ing all of the case­worker’s con­cerns and ques­tions, demon­strat­ing ev­ery­day tasks around his own house.

With Bullis’ ex­pla­na­tion, the case­worker filed a pos­i­tive re­port that did not ex­press any con­cerns about dis­abil­ity, and in 2008, the judge granted Bullis un­su­per­vised visi­ta­tion rights of his daugh­ter.

“I wasn’t go­ing to let him go un­til he heard ev­ery­thing I had to say,” Bullis said. “His re­port could have killed me.”

The case­worker sub­mit­ted the proper re­port, Bullis said, be­cause the judge’s let­ter only asked so­cial ser­vices to eval­u­ate his abil­i­ties, not his blind­ness.

“For some rea­son, with dis­abil­ity, you could bring up imag­i­nary sub­jects and the court lis­tened to it.” Fighting for le­gal par­ity While his own case was on­go­ing, Bullis joined the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind in pur­su­ing state leg­is­la­tion to en­sure other blind par­ents would not have to face the same up­hill le­gal bat­tle he faced, he said.

In 2009, the Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly passed a bill lim­it­ing the way courts con­sider a par­ent’s dis­abil­ity in cus­tody, visi­ta­tion and Child in Need of As­sis­tance cases. Un­der the law, dis­abil­ity is only rel­e­vant if a court finds it af­fects the par­ent’s abil­ity to care for a child.

Sighted peo­ple some­times for­get how much ex­pe­ri­ence the blind have with their dis­abil­ity, Ric­cobono said, and that they are not newly blind be­fore be­com­ing par­ents.

“Not ev­ery blind par­ent is per­fect be­cause not ev­ery par­ent is per­fect,” Ric­cobono said. “I al­ways say, blind peo­ple don’t keep emer­gency rooms open all by our­selves. There are plenty of sighted par­ents who have ac­ci­dents, and that’s why they’re called ac­ci­dents.”

This year’s orig­i­nal bill also set new rules for so­cial ser­vices’ treat­ment of dis­abled par­ents in Child in Need of As­sis­tance cases. These are brought when the agency tries to prove that a per­son is not fit to be a par­ent, whether be­cause of abuse or ne­glect or sim­ply be­cause they aren’t ca­pa­ble of car­ing for a child. But af­ter push­back from the Mary­land Depart­ment of Hu­man Re­sources, the so­cial ser­vices cases were ex­cluded to en­sure a bill was passed this ses­sion, Maneki said.

The Mary­land Depart­ment of Hu­man Re­sources, which over­sees so­cial ser­vices in the state, felt that the new rules would place an ex­tra step in re­mov­ing chil­dren from sit­u­a­tions of ne­glect and abuse, Maneki said. Sup­port­ive parenting

ser­vices If a court finds a par­ent’s dis­abil­ity does af­fect the best in­ter­est of the child, the bill also in­tro­duces sup­port­ive parenting ser­vices as an al­ter­na­tive to lim­it­ing cus­tody or visi­ta­tion rights. A per­son will have the op­por­tu­nity to show that with these ser­vices, their dis­abil­ity would not im­pede their parenting abil­i­ties.

Sup­port­ive ser­vices could in­clude parenting classes, skill-build­ing and con­nect­ing with other peo­ple who have the same dis­abil­ity, Ric­cobono said.

“Why reinvent the wheel if there are other par­ents out there who are do­ing it, and do­ing it well?” Ric­cobono said.

As pres­i­dent of sup­port or­ga­ni­za­tion Mary­land Par­ents of Blind Chil­dren, Ric­cobono is ac­cus­tomed to ed­u­cat­ing oth­ers about blind­ness and parenting. Two of her three chil­dren are legally blind, and she has used some of these parenting tech­niques with her own fam­ily.

Some blind par­ents use noise- mak­ing tricks as ways to keep track of their chil­dren in busy ar­eas. When Ric­cobono takes her young chil­dren to the play­ground or the mall, she some­times at­taches bells on zip ties to their shoes so she can fol­low the ring­ing sound. Other par­ents have their chil­dren carry Tic Tacs in their pock­ets or wear shoes spe­cially de­signed to squeak, she said.

The Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind may also be able to pro­vide sup­port, Danielsen said. Prod­ucts like the KNFB Reader, an app that con­verts printed text to au­dio, and ser vices like the NFB- Newsline, a free phone line that reads news­pa­per ar­ti­cles to sub­scribers, are avail­able through the fed­er­a­tion’s web­site.

And if the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind can­not pro­vide the sup­port, they can help oth­ers find the ser­vices they need, Danielsen said. In some cases, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has taken on le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of blind peo­ple, he said.

How­ever, sup­port­ive ser­vices do not have to be lim­ited to re­sources pro­vided specif­i­cally for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, Ric­cobono said. Any skill- build­ing class that helps a blind per­son could po­ten­tially work in court, she said.

“Not all is­sues have to do with blind­ness,” Danielsen said. “But where blind­ness has to do with it, the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of the Blind can help.”

CAP­I­TAL NEWS SER­VICE PHOTO BY LEO TRAUB

When blind mother Melissa Ric­cobono brings her young chil­dren to crowded pub­lic places, she at­taches bells to their shoes.

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