Historically, individuals with mental disabilities have faced enormous societal biases concerning their fitness to serve as parents. For many years, the chief governmental response to the issues and challenges of parenting with a mental disability was to sterilize individuals with mental disabilities and prevent them from having children. As attitudes have evolved in this country, involuntary sterilization has given way to taking away these parents’ children after they are born, often with disastrous consequences for families.

Stereotyped notions that individuals with mental disabilities are inadequate parents and place their children at high risk of abuse or neglect, continue to be prevalent. In addition, there is a widespread failure among child welfare agencies and courts to offer these parents the types of services that would enable them to parent effectively. Taken together, these factors have made it very difficult for parents with mental disabilities to maintain parental rights.

Efforts to prevent loss of parental rights by this population have typically fared poorly. Strong advocacy and strategic planning are needed to prevent these trends from continuing. Collaboration between protection and advocacy system lawyers and lawyers who represent parents in custody and termination proceedings may help generate positive results for these families.



This case involves a mother diagnosed with physical and mental disabilities. She was in danger of having to give up custody of her two-year-old son, despite the fact that there was no credible evidence that this was necessary. The Bazelon Center, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, filed an amicus brief to provide the court with crucial information.

Read The Amicus Brief


The Bazelon Center was a key contributor to a model statute developed under a grant to the University of Pennsylvania from the Department of Education, that lays out the importance of supporting parents with psychiatric disabilities.

Read the Model Statute