Heroux seeks custody rights for disabled parents

ATTLEBORO — State Rep. Paul Heroux contends disabled parents are sometimes discriminated against when it comes to child custody rights and he wants to do something about it.

He said sometimes the judges consciously or even subconsciously assume disabled parents cannot care adequately for children by themselves.

Heroux, D-Attleboro, has filed a bill that prohibits disabilities from being used as a “negative factor” in determining awarding custody and visitation rights.

In cases where custody is denied, the bill would require judges to give a written reasons of how custody would have harmed the children.

The bill was a subject of a hearing this week before the Joint Committee on Judiciary at the Statehouse.

“We had an army of people testifying” for the bill, he said.

Kate Nemens of state Mental Health Legal Advisory Commission, said discrimination is already illegal, but Massachusetts law does not specifically address discrimination against the disabled in custody cases.

Under the bill, she said, a judge could still deny custody if he or she thought it would endanger the children, but the judge would have to explain the “nexus” between the disability and the potential harm.

Nemens also said the judge would have to consider whether special equipment could overcome the potential problems.

As an example, she said a blind parent could be provided with a talking thermometer to take a child’s temperature, or a deaf parent could get flashing smoke alarms.

She said she does not know of any opposition to the bill, but it will only pass if legislators become more aware of the problem and make it a priority.

Heroux also said he does not know of any opponents, but noted he filed the same bill twice before and both times it got pushed aside and assigned to a study.

Bills usually only pass the House when the leadership gets behind them, he said.The measure now has 30 co-sponsors, he said.

The idea behind the bill was brought to him shortly after he was elected in 2012, he said.

At that time, Robyn Powell, an activist on issues impacting the disabled, told him about problems disabled parents were having getting custody of their children.

He said disabled parents believe their disabilities are held against them.

Jim Hand may be reached at 508-236-0399 or jhand@thesunchronicle.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TSCpolitics.

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