By Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Patti Flynn fell in the shower the week before she was going to be married. She was 20 years old and suddenly couldn’t talk or move her right side.
The stroke changed her life.
She still had a 4-year-old son from a previous relationship to care for and a long road of rehabilitation ahead. Her fiance left, but her parents stepped in to help. Eventually, she relearned to walk and regained a limited ability to talk. She figured out how to change diapers with one hand.
After a few years, she fell in love again and had another baby. That relationship fell apart.
And now, with their child in kindergarten, she’s trapped in a yearlong custody battle with her ex-boyfriend, the baby’s father. Currently, the parents share custody, but her ex is seeking full custody. Flynn says her disability is at the heart of the issue.
“Her ability to parent because of her disability will be on trial,” her attorney Jack Cavanagh said. A resulting side effect of the stroke has been aphasia, a language disorder that makes her struggle to find the words she wants to communicate. Her speech comes in short, halting bursts, and she lost her ability to read.
She and her two boys, ages 5 and 12, live with her parents in Wentzville, Mo. Her mother, college instructor Linda O’Heron, frequently speaks on her daughter’s behalf.
“Her ex says she will be unable to handle the emotional and educational needs (their child) will have. That she won’t be able to help him with his homework,” O’Heron said. “She raised (her older son) with minimal contact with his father … I don’t do their laundry. I don’t get them ready for school or into bed. I don’t clean up after them,” her mother said.
The Missouri Legislature has passed a new law protecting the rights of disabled parents from state child protective services. It states that children cannot be removed from their parent’s home solely because of a disability unless there is a direct threat to the safety and welfare of the child.
The legislation arose after a case in Kansas City where a newborn was temporarily removed from the custody of two blind parents.
“There is a large percentage of parents with developmental disabilities who have had children removed from their homes,” said Kirsten Dunham, director of policy and advocacy for Paraquad, a nonprofit for the disabled. She says many say they have experienced discrimination in the family court system. That law won’t help Flynn in her case because it doesn’t involve state intervention.
Flynn’s ex-boyfriend’s attorney, Tammy Repaso, says the case is not based on disability.
“We would never pursue a custody based solely on disability or disease of a parent. Instead, these matters are based on the best interest of the child,” she said.
It’s difficult to imagine being in either parent’s shoes in this case. On one hand, any one of us could be struck by a disabling accident or disease at any moment. It would not change our love for our children, and having to fight an expensive legal battle to keep a child adds the most high-stakes insult to injury. But, if we ever found ourselves on the other side of the table, would we be able to recognize that every parent faces his or her own challenges and difficulties and be able to accept a disabled co-parent, especially after a contentious break-up?
Flynn’s lawyer says she has had psychological and physiological testing by experts to prove she is a capable mother. They will present their evidence in court because it looks like the case is headed to trial. He says it’s a civil rights issue, that if she is assessed to be a competent and loving parent, she should not have to miss out on raising her child simply because she is disabled.
Flynn is worried about being able to express herself fluently on the stand. But she is gearing up for the fight and refuses to back down.
“I don’t want. Talking. I’m nervous about that. But I’m ready. I’m tough,” she said.
Sometimes, will and determination speak louder than words.
Aisha Sultan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.