A Massachusetts mom with a “mild intellectual disability” won a two-year historic legal battle Monday and was reunited with the baby who was taken from her at 2 days old and placed in foster care.
Sara Gordon, a pseudonym for the now 21-year-old mother, had been told by Massachusetts child welfare officials in 2012 that she was unable to care for her daughter because of her disability. While still in the hospital, according to official records, Gordon had missed a night feeding because she couldn’t read the clock and she failed to burp the baby properly.
Officials also said the young mother was “uncomfortable” changing the baby’s diaper right after childbirth, according to a federal civil rights investigation. The decision to return the toddler to her mother could have far-reaching implications for developmentally disabled parents.
Lawyers for Gordon and her parents told TODAY the family was “giddy” over the news.
“I felt like a kid before Christmas,” Sara said through her lawyer, Mark Watkins of Shutesbury.
“I have never seen anything like this in my 24 years," said Watkins.
Gordon lives with her parents, Kim and Sam Gordon, whose offers to help the little girl, known as “Dana,” were rejected by child welfare officials, even after her grandmother retired early.
“They said I had to choose between my daughter and my granddaughter,” Kim Gordon told TODAY. “That’s not right. I should be able to have both.”
The Department of Justice agreed and concluded the state acted illegally.
“[Gordon] is a loving, caring, and conscientious mother who is willing to do whatever it takes to have her daughter in her life,” according to the report. “There is no discernible reason … that [she] and her parents do not have the ability to care for her child safely.”
On Monday, a judge in closed family court granted custody to the now 2-year-old’s grandmother.
Dana, a blond-haired, blue-eyed toddler, is adjusting well and seems to know her family, according to Kim Gordon.
“When we first picked up the baby, she reached right out to my daughter,” she said. “She knows her mom. And now my daughter is learning to be a parent with no one looking over her.”
Until now, the family has only had one-hour supervised visitations with the baby.
“It’s been very hard,” said Kim Gordon. “There’ve been nights when I went to bed crying. We didn’t know if we would win or lose.”
The grandparents’ lawyer, Kally Walsh of Springfield, said, “This family got guardianship because they are remarkable. These people prevailed over two years of being told, ‘no,’ without the smallest increment of help with their granddaughter.”
Last June, the family filed a federal complaint, saying the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families had illegally discriminated against their disabled daughter.
In January, the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a written report ordering state officials to support Gordon’s efforts to be a mother or face a federal lawsuit.
The report also demanded compensation for the family and cited child welfare policy changes that must be implemented by the state.
DCF spokeswoman Cayenne Isaksen told TODAY her agency would provide support services “going forward.”
"The primary responsibility of the Department of Children and Families is protecting children and ensuring that they are able to grow and thrive in a safe and nurturing environment while acting in their best interest,” Isaksen said in a statement.
“The department is always seeking ways to enhance its practices and policies to ensure that we are doing the very best we can to support our children and families, and we look forward to working collaboratively with the DOJ about their decision.”
An estimated 4.1 million parents have disabilities in the United States — roughly 6.2 percent of all parents with children under 18, according to the National Council on Disability. Removal rates for children whose parents have an intellectual disability can be 40 to 80 percent, the council estimates. The Dana case could change that.
The council attorney, Robyn Powell, said this is the first time the federal government has taken a stand in a case involving a parent with disabilities.
“We are thrilled with the results, but I wish it had never come to this,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching that the family was separated for so long based solely on the presumption that the mother was unfit because she had a disability.”
Gordon’s developmental disability requires “repetition and hands-on instruction” to learn new tasks and she has difficulty reading and following oral instructions, according to the federal report.
But she has passed a state-approved CPR test and parenting classes and is finishing her high school degree.
Powell said the case against Gordon was “egregious” and not “unique,” applauding federal intervention. “This could have far-reaching implications. These things happen all the time. Attorneys across the country are really taking notice.”
Meanwhile, a week into the reunion, Kim Gordon said Dana is calling her family “Mama,” “Grandma” and “Gramp.”
“The hardest thing for me in the last two years was sending my granddaughter back to that foster home,” she said. “Now, we don’t have to let her go. We can keep her.”
“We were discriminated [against] a lot,” she said of raising Sara. “But I raised my daughter to be herself and accept that. She is the best, after everything she has been through. She’s a wonderful mom.”