by Connor Semelsberger, MPP
December 5, 2019
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has once again taken action to protect Americans, this time from disability discrimination. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) initiated an investigation into the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) upon learning that two small children were removed from a mother and father simply because the mother and father had a disability. The children were removed shortly after their birth based on the assumption that the parents would not have the ability to care for the children because of their disability, stripping away their parental rights.
Since the Oregon policy assumed from the children’s birth that a disability prevented the parents from caring for their children, they had to undergo psychological evaluations and participate in parenting classes to prove that they were fit to be parents. Thanks to a local county circuit court dismissing the neglect petition, the parents were finally able to be reunified with their children. If the county court had not stepped in, the Oregon Health Department would not have reunited the family.
These actions prompted OCR to convey major concerns to ODHS with how policies to prevent discrimination against parents with disabilities were being implemented in Oregon. Fortunately, the Oregon health department agreed to comply with federal disability rights laws and update its policies and procedures to create a new disability rights training plan. It is very unfortunate that these parents in Oregon had to go four years without custody of their eldest child simply because state officials decided their disability prevented them from being proper parents without any evidence to prove so. Thankfully, the Office of Civil Rights at HHS investigated this case and worked with the state of Oregon to make systemic changes to their child custody policies so that future parents with disabilities will not have their parental rights taken away.
From enforcing conscience protections for nurses who object to performing abortions, to preventing further sexual abuse at Michigan State University, this is just another example of how President Trump’s HHS has followed through with enforcing all federal anti-discrimination laws, not just ones that fit into his political agenda. An administration should not get to pick and choose which civil rights laws to enforce, but unfortunately there are many federal civil rights laws that are not prioritized and are even forgotten due to political reasons. For example, in 2011, the Obama administration issued new regulations to limit the number of federal conscience protection laws that would be enforced by HHS to only three. This is in stark contrast with a new Trump administration regulation currently pending in the courts to enforce 25 existing conscience protection laws.
Protecting Americans from all types of discrimination has been a priority of the Trump administration from the beginning. Examples like this parental rights case demonstrate that if someone who believes they have been discriminated against files a complaint with OCR, the administration will follow the appropriate civil rights laws and take all complaints seriously.