An Uneven Playing Field for Parents with Disabilities

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I both have disabilities. He is blind and I suffer from a traumatic brain injury I received serving in Iraq. I’m pregnant and we’re due in about a month. We were both so excited, but a friend told us that there’s a chance we could lose custody of the baby because we both have disabilities. Now, instead of looking forward to becoming parents, we’re both in a panic. Is that true? If so, what can we do?

A: Thank you so much for your question. I often hear from parents with special needs kids, but rarely from disabled parents themselves—which is surprising for two reasons:

First, there are more than four million parents in the US who have disabilities and children under 18. Second, those parents are far more likely than non-disabled parents to have their children removed from their home or to lose their parental rights. Parents with disabilities are also more likely than non-disabled parents to lose their children in a divorce and they face many obstacles when trying to adopt.

I have to admit that this surprised me. I grew up in northern California, which has always been the center of the disability rights movement. And the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed more than 20 years ago, was supposed to ensure that disabled people—including parents—have rights. But then I read an eye-opening report from The National Council on Disability (ncd.gov), called “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children.” The report shows that when one or both parents have a psychiatric or cognitive disability (which could include your traumatic brain injury), removal rates can be as high as 40 to 80 percent. In addition, “Parents who are deaf or blind report extremely high rates of child removal and loss of parental rights.” The report also tells a number of heart-wrenching stories of people with disabilities who had their children taken away and lost their parental rights.

he big issue, of course, is whether the children of disabled parents are more likely to be mistreated or less likely to be properly cared for than children of non-disabled parents. If the kids are in danger, I’m all for removing them. But the criteria should be the same whether the parents are disabled or not.

One of the best ways to determine how well parents do their job is to ask the kids. And that’s exactly what two researchers at the National Center for Parents with Disabilities and their Families have been doing for several years. Paul Preston and Jean Jacobs have interviewed more than 1,000 people 17-21 who were raised by at least one parent with a significant physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disability. Fifty-eight percent said their experience having a parent with a disability was positive or very positive. Thirty-four percent said it was mixed, and 7 percent said it was negative. Doesn’t sound much different from the answers kids with non-disabled parents would give.

Interestingly, most of the young people in the study said that having a disabled parent gave them some specific advantages over their peers, such as learning better life skills and resourcefulness, and becoming more compassionate and independent. Only 39 percent felt they had too many responsibilities at home.

Next, connect with other parents with disabilities in your area and familiarize yourself with your legal rights. Through the Looking Glass (lookingglass.org) is a great resource for all of that.

Dads in the Military: Supporting a Pregnant Wife

My wife and I are expecting our first child. The problem is that I’m in the US Marine Corps on tour in Iraq. I have been here since the beginning of the pregnancy and I might not be there for the birth of our child. My wife is having a hard time doing this on her own and I feel that there’s nothing I can do to support her. I’m reading your book, The Expectant Father, which I find very helpful. But do you know of any resources that are specifically aimed at military dads and/or their families?

There are over 700,000 children under five in military families who are separated from their father or mother. As a former U.S. Marine myself, my heart goes out to all of them. Here are some great resources you and your wife can use to get the support you need. And because I know many military dads will be reading this column, I’m also including some tips on staying in touch with the kids and maintaining relationships while away. [Read more…]

Military spouse of the year: And the winner is…. a dad!

A stay-at-home father of two has just received one of the highest civilian honors we can give: the 2012 Military Spouse of the Year from Military Spouse magazine. Jeremy Hilton, whose wife is in the Air Force, is the first man to ever receive the award.

[Read more…]

Dads in the Military: Bonding before Birth

I’m in the military and I’m going to be sent overseas for at least a year. The problem is that my wife is pregnant and due to deliver right about the time I’m supposed to ship out. I can probably finagle things so that I’ll be here for the birth of our child, but the year abroad is unavoidable. What kinds of things can I do to try and bond with our infant early on, before I am deployed overseas? Equally important, are there things I can do to try and maintain a bond with such a young baby while I’m away?

What terrible timing. Try to spend every second you can with your baby as you possibly can before you have to ship out. You don’t need to plan any special activities with newborns-holding, changing, bottle-feeding (either formula or breast milk), reading to her, taking her out for walks, etc–the most mundane and basic stuff but that’s what relationships are based on.
[Read more…]

The Army? You Want to Join the Army?

Dear Mr. Dad: My 18-year old son wants to join the Army, but neither my wife nor I want him to enlist. How do we communicate that without sounding like we want to control his life? Is it wrong to tell him we think he’s making a big mistake?

A: First, my congratulations to your son: wanting to join the military shows courage, responsibility, and a desire to do good and protect others (although, as someone who enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17, I’d have to question his choice of the Army). Second, understand that at 18, your son is a legal adult. If he’d have wanted to, he could have signed on the dotted line, packed his bags, and asked you for a ride to the airport. The fact that he raised the issue at all is huge. It means he’s really thinking things through and that he respects your opinion.

Before you say anything to your son one way or the other, consider these two things: 1) Why he wants to join in the first place, and 2) Why you’re against it.

People join the military for a variety of reasons, including the enlistment and reenlistment bonuses (which can be in the 10s of thousands), getting a job, getting an education, having a chance to travel the world, and the amazing benefits available to veterans. You can familiarize yourself with some of these benefits at military.com/benefits.

The best way to find out your son’s motivations is to ask. So sit down with him and talk about the issues. And by “talk,” I really mean “listen.” Don’t hog the conversation and don’t try to force your viewpoint on him. If you come across as judgmental, you’ll be giving him yet another reason to enlist: to get away from his controlling parents.

Since your son hasn’t made his final decision, I suggest that you, your wife, and your son go visit a local recruiter. They’re generally very open to including parents in the process. At the very least, this will show your son that you respect his decisions and that you’re concerned that he make the best choices. If he hasn’t already seen a recruiter, this meeting will give all of you a chance to find out what positions (called MOS—military occupation specialty) your son is qualified for. Not everyone has to be a grunt (an infantryman). Speaking with a recruiter can also help your son clarify his goals and give you some insight into what’s driving his desires.

Now, to your issues. As parents, we all want to protect our children from danger, and there aren’t many jobs in the world where your son could be more in harm’s way than the service, particularly these days. In addition, you may have some strong issues with the military. But your natural instinct to protect your son (or to express your political views) isn’t a good enough reason to try to change his mind.. Again, he’s an adult and harsh criticism could very well drive him even further away than boot camp.

If at all possible, find some support for yourself. Talk with family members or friends whose children have served. Try to get both sides of the story—some parents who were unhappy about the decision and some who supported their child’s choice.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is support your son. Sure, tell him you’re afraid for his safety—he is too. But also tell him how proud you are.

Coming Home. Okay, Now What?

Dear Mr. Dad: Now that our troops are coming home from Iraq, my husband is thinking about getting out of the Air Force. We’ve heard a lot about all the benefits that are supposedly available to veterans and their families, but how do we find out about them?

A: When I got out of the Marine Corps I started looking into this, but the process was so cumbersome and overwhelming that I gave up. Big mistake. By not thoroughly investigating, I missed out on a lot of benefits. Fortunately, things are much, much better today.

I recently interviewed representatives from a number of agencies within the Veteran’s Administration, which should be your first stop—specifically their eBenefits program (ebenefits.va.gov). This is where vets (and soon-to-be vets) can register for health benefits and investigate many others. If you start registering now, the system will tell you what programs you may be eligible for and the documentation you’ll need to access them. Here are just a few examples:

Your husband may receive hiring preferences for certain government and civil service jobs. He may also have an advantage when bidding on government contracts. If he has a service-connected disability, check out vetsuccess.gov, which provides counseling, education, vocational training, and a number of other services. “Disability’ now includes Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), which don’t leave visible scars but can be just as damaging.

Today’s GI Bill (gibill.va.gov) is fantastic, paying full tuition for in-state schools and up to $17,500/year for private. If the vet can’t or doesn’t want to use them, these benefits can be transferred to another family member.

If you’re looking to buy a house or refinance your current loan, the VA guarantee allows for higher LTV (loan-to-value) ratios, meaning you may be able to get qualified with a smaller down payment. Funding fees can be a little steep, though, but there are other advantages.

National Cemetery Administration. We all know we need to talk about this at some point—we just don’t want to do it today. As uncomfortable as it might make you, visit cem.va.gov, read up on the benefits and eligibility, and then store the information away in the back of your mind. Hopefully you won’t need it for a long, long time. But knowing where to turn is better than not knowing.

Check into non-government organizations such as the VFW and American Legion. They can help vets negotiate the VA system and provide support in a variety of other ways. In addition, most states provide some kind of benefits for veterans. Check to see whether yours has a Department of Veterans Affairs or something similar.

There is a dizzying array of other organizations offering services to veterans and families—way more than I can go into here. The Military Family Network (emilitary.org) has a ton of resources and a comprehensive directory of providers that’s well worth exploring.

Your husband currently has life insurance through the military (Servicemembers Group Life Insurance—SGLI), which he can convert to a veteran’s policy (VGLI) but it has to be done soon after discharge.

One more idea: Look into the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. This wonderful program lets veterans tell their stories (orally, in writing, or in pictures), which then become a permanent part of the Library’s collection. If your husband has stories—and everyone does—have him visit loc.gov/vets.

Finally, I recorded in-depth interviews with a number of VSOs. You’ll be able to hear them on the military version of my radio show, “Positive Parenting.” Check militaryfather.com – Coming Up – for the schedule.