26 12 2007

Disabled mother wins legal battle to raise son

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

By SCOTT McMILLION Chronicle Staff Writer

http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/articles/2007/12/25/news/15mom25.txt

LIVINGSTON – The state of Montana discriminated against a paralyzed mother when it threatened to take away her newborn, a hearings officer for the Human Rights Bureau has ruled.

The case involves Geri Glass, who suffered a brain injury in a 1996 car wreck. She is paralyzed from the waist down and has very limited strength and mobility in her upper body.

Glass, now 28, gave birth in December 2004 to a son she named Gage.

At the Billings hospital where he was born, some people were concerned about her ability to care for the infant. They relayed those concerns to the Child and Family Services Division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Glass brought Gage home to Livingston on Christmas Eve 2004, but by then the case was under investigation by the Livingston office of Family Services.

 Officials there told Glass that if she wanted to retain custody of her son she must write a “plan of care” spelling out how Gage was to be cared for until he reaches 10 or 12 years of age, and possibly up to 18. Family Services wanted that document to stipulate that she was not to be left alone with the boy at any time, according to a ruling signed Friday by Hearing Officer Terry Spear. Glass disputed those orders and, while she agreed that she needed help, insisted that she wanted to be as independent as possible and raise her own child. Then she hired lawyers.

Family Services backed off on the case after March 2005 news stories attracted the attention of agency bosses in Helena who were concerned about “public relations and political repercussions,” the ruling states.

The ruling also states that Family Services “exercised the police power against (Glass) in a selectively harsher fashion, because of her disability.”

Spear determined that Family Services staffers had no proof that Gage had ever been harmed or neglected, and they tried to make Glass prove the boy would never be harmed.

“Her disability was the only reason she came under scrutiny regarding her parenting,” Spear wrote. “She was otherwise a fit parent.”

Gage is now 3 years old, healthy and happy, Glass said Monday.

“He’s my little pride and joy,” she said.

She was represented in the case by lawyers Tim Kelly, of Emigrant, and Kevin Brown, of Livingston.

“She’s had a whole community of people to help her raise him,” Kelly said Monday.

Spear said he found no malicious behavior on the part of Family Services.

“The evidence strongly suggests that (Family Services) acted out of a sense of urgency to protect Gage from a perceived immediate threat of neglect,” he wrote. However, he was highly critical of the lack of training for department staff in the rights of disabled people and cited a “cognitive and evidentiary disconnect” between the staffers’ fears for the boy’s safety and the evidence of their actions.

The investigation began while Glass and Gage were staying with family members and Gage “was not at risk” at that time, Spear wrote.

Family Services staffers “acted without personal subjective malice toward (Glass) but nonetheless acted because of her disability,” he wrote.

But he also ruled that they retaliated against her when she accused them of discriminating against her based on her disability. And he said they made “apparently or patently false statements in refusing to take any action or even consider acting upon (Glass’) complaints about discrimination and in withholding information that might have been helpful” to Glass’ discrimination complaints.

He ordered both sides to begin a “remedial phase hearing” to determine damages.

Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt said Monday the department would have no comment until lawyers have a chance to look over the ruling.

Glass said Monday she hopes the state has learned a lesson.

“I hope they can’t ever do this to anybody else ever again,” she said.

Scott McMillion is at scottm@dailychronicle.com

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