How Smart Do You Have to Be to Raise a Child?
New York magazine|January 25 - February 7, 2016

The state said a 19-year-old with an intellectual disability wasn’t equipped to look after her baby and whisked the newborn off to another family just after birth - a decision the mother was ready to fight. But how smart do you have to be to raise a child?

Lisa Miller

The young woman labored in the back seat of her parents’ car as it sped down the country highway toward the hospital. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving 2012, and already the tall trees pressing at the edges of the road were bare. Sara Gordon had felt the hard pangs before breakfast. Her baby, a girl, was born after lunch. The baby was perfect, as babies are, but Sara’s life to this point had been anything but. Poor, white, and single, Sara Gordon was 19 years old at the time of her daughter’s birth, living with her parents, and still in school. The baby’s father, whom Sara prefers to call “that low-life scumbag,” had denied paternity and was nowhere to be found. Not that she much cared. There was no affection between Sara and the scumbag, no relationship even - only sex and a pregnancy, which Sara failed to mention until her father discerned it at dinner one night when she was about eight weeks along. She pushed a plate of lasagna away and got up from the table. “She’s knocked up,” said Sam Gordon to his wife, Kim. “She better not be,” said Kim in response. But she knew he was right: Lasagna had always been Sara’s favorite dish.

Sara wanted to be a mother. She has a girlish attachment to Winnie-the-Pooh, and in the months leading up to her due date, she scoured Walmart looking for anything Pooh: socks, onesies, crib sheets. The family couldn’t afford much, but Sara splurged on a brand-new Pooh “snappy,” she says—a snuggly one-piece pajama suit with feet. And as her pregnancy progressed, a plan took shape. Kim would quit her job as a hospital aide to help tend to the child while Sara was in school. Sam, who worked in a junkyard, would provide what financial support he could. Dana June Gordon weighed five pounds and 13 ounces at birth, her tiny pink head covered with white-blonde fuzz. She was named after her maternal great-grandmothers and is pseudonymous here, along with her mother and grandparents, to guard their privacy.

From the moment Sara entered the ward that day, the Gordons felt that the hospital staff disapproved of them. Sara Gordon is not like most of the young women who give birth at this small-town hospital. She takes little care of her appearance, preferring large, baggy T-shirts with wiseacre slogans (“I’ve stopped listening. Why haven’t you stopped talking?”) over clothing that might flatter her more. Her speech is flat, her enunciation imprecise, and she has a hard time paying attention in groups because too much chatter whizzes past her brain. Sara has an intellectual disability, a condition that until 2013 was listed in the DSM as “mental retardation.” Her IQ is around 70. She can read, but it’s a chore and something she frankly prefers not to do.

So when a nurse handed her a folder, which included a feeding chart, and asked her to read it, she was stymied. “I was like, What the heck?” She had already filled out the birth certificate and Social Security forms herself. According to the family’s version of things, Sara was awestruck and overwhelmed, as most new mothers are, and spent most of the first day in bed, holding her daughter and talking to her, counting her fingers and holding her little feet, at one point stripping her entirely bare so that she could better gaze on her daughter’s amazing, miniature self. “Oh my God, look at this belly!” she exclaimed. Sara couldn’t wait to dress her baby in the new outfits she’d bought and put Dana in the Pooh snappy straight away—then fretted over how the baby seemed to swim in it. She also worried over the size of the nipple on the bottle she’d been given to feed her daughter. It was so big, and Dana’s mouth was so, so small. Sara asked one nurse for a different nipple and got the brush-off; but it turned out she was right, she says, and a second nurse found her a more comfortable fit.

Visiting hours ended at 8 p.m., and Sam and Kim went home so everybody could get some sleep. For the first time, Sara was left alone with her child, and she missed a feeding because she cannot tell time on a clock with hands. “Digital is so much better to read,” she explains to me during my second long visit with her and her family, nodding to the clock on their apartment wall. “That clock there? I would be off by, like, 45 minutes.”

The way the medical staff saw it, the birth of Dana Gordon was cause for concern. At some point, believing the baby’s life was at risk, someone alerted the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. The hospital was worried that Sara “was not able to comprehend how to handle or care for the child due to the mother’s mental retardation,” according to a document published jointly by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Health and Human Services in connection with the case. In addition to having missed the feeding, Sara didn’t hold the baby safely. She seemed checked out, watching cartoons, according to a DCF account, while the baby cried.

On Sunday morning, two investigators from DCF appeared in Sara’s room. One of them, a man named Scott Henderson, asked Sara a bunch of questions. Who was the baby’s father? Who planned to care for the child? Kim explained that Sara would be the mother— but that, as the grandmother, she would help. Then Henderson asked Sara to show him that she could swaddle; she made an attempt, trying to wrap Dana snugly into a receiving blanket, but “it wasn’t good enough,” she remembers. “I didn’t do it right. He pushed me out of the way and said, ‘Let me see if I can do it,’ kind of joking about it. And they’re like, ‘Oh, you can’t do this.’ Like, very negative.” (DCF declined to comment on the details of the Sara Gordon case, citing continued work with the DOJ on issues related to the case.)

According to his report, Henderson believed that Sara could not keep her baby safe. In his presence, she forgot to burp the baby and to clean the spit out of her mouth; she held Dana clumsily and was uncomfortable changing her diaper. These complaints might apply to any first-time mother, but the state saw signs of deeper problems: “Dana needs to come into foster care at this time. There are concerns with Ms. Gordon’s ability to meet the basic needs of a newborn child.” On Commonwealth of Massachusetts letterhead, Henderson declared there was reason to believe that Dana Gordon had, already, suffered neglect at the hands of her biological mother. The baby would leave the hospital in the care of the state. And the Gordons would go home to their apartment full of baby supplies. “It was pretty bad when I had to pack it up and stick it in my closet so I wouldn’t see it again,” Sara says. “It was like, Wow, the baby stuff. Huh—no baby.

How smart do you have to be to be a parent? Sara didn’t walk until she was 18 months old. She didn’t talk until she was 4. Potty-training was a years-long challenge: Kim can’t count the number of times she was called to Sara’s preschool classroom because Sara had had “an accident”—a mess no teacher wanted to touch. Now 22, she dresses herself and can keep herself clean; she can cook spaghetti and slice a cucumber and do her own laundry and scan a document, and though she does not drive, she can get herself, on foot or by bike, to meet her grandfather for a free church dinner on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. She is learning to take the bus. According to an assessment done in the fall of 2014, Sara’s functioning is “borderline.” She has trouble keeping track of details—she may get “sidetracked,” as her father puts it, on the way to the store—and with processing and communicating complex ideas. She needs help interpreting the dosage instructions on the back of a medicine bottle, and she doesn’t know how big a teaspoon is. Her mother keeps track of her money.

The most concrete assessments of Sara’s abilities, of course, were made in school—an environment she loathed. It was an immersion experience in being judged and failing to live up to someone else’s standards. Sara always had an IEP (individualized education plan) that detailed the extent of her disability, assessed her learning style, and entitled her to special-education services. But under constant scrutiny, Sara developed a hypersensitivity to being underestimated—and an “irritation” (her word) toward anyone who presumed her incompetence. She told me—twice—about an English teacher who suggested she opt out of taking the Massachusetts state exam that high-school students have to pass to graduate. “I said to her, ‘You don’t think you have confidence in me, but I’m going to show you wrong.’ ” Sara did pass the English portion of the test, but not the science or the math, and received a “certificate” for having finished four years of high school, but no diploma.

But the frustrations had begun much earlier. In pre-K, she couldn’t sit still at circle time; in first grade, she was sent to a speech pathologist. She had few friends. Confronted with her own limitations and the impatience of her teachers, Sara would wind up affronted and angry. “Like, there would be a floor puzzle and I would do it the way I know how to do it and they would be like, ‘No, no, no, you’re doing it wrong. You have to do it this way.’ And I would be like, ‘I’m doing it. Why does it matter?’ ” Sara remembers. “And then they would show me and I would get irritated—I would get so mad at them. Eventually, I would end up in a corner—” “Which I thought was wrong,” adds her mother, in her wide New England accent. “Don’t put my daughter in the corner because you can’t—”

“Because you don’t have the patience to sit down and try to …” Here Sara trails off.

However infuriating Sara and her mother found school, this educational setting represented an enormous leap forward for kids with intellectual disabilities. Until 1975, when Congress passed a law requiring all school districts to deliver “a free appropriate” public education to disabled kids, most children like Sara wouldn’t have gone to public school at all. They might have been kept at home and hidden away, or their parents might have been persuaded, for the sake of the other children, to send their disabled offspring to institutions where they were sometimes shackled, beaten, or starved— treated, in other words, as if they were not quite human. (In 1967, 200,000 Americans lived in these facilities against their will.)

That Sara was in school doing puzzles can be seen as a progressive victory. But while schools have (mostly) developed the capacity to teach and help the intellectually disabled within their four walls, the same supports are not there outside that environment. And there is still no consensus about what to do with an intellectually disabled adolescent who becomes sexually active. Some parents, like Kim, dream of married happiness for their disabled children, but others find peace of mind in surgeries or prescription drugs that render their kids infertile. Today’s schoolchildren may be instructed to have a respect for “difference,” but among their parents, there is still a deep ambivalence about the propriety of people with limited intelligence to procreate—an uncomfortable echo of Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, back in 1927, in the Supreme Court decision affirming the right of states to sterilize the “feeble minded” without their consent, declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

And when a woman with an intellectual disability does conceive, she often has no safety net—especially if, like Sara Gordon, she also has no means. Thirty-seven states still have laws on the books that make a disability reason enough to terminate a person’s parental rights, according to a groundbreaking investigation called “Rocking the Cradle” published by the National Council on Disability in September 2012, two months before Dana Gordon’s birth. People with all types of disabilities report losing custody of their children with “alarming frequency,” according to the report, and for those with intellectual disabilities, the rate can be as high as 80 percent. The cognition question thus has a civil-rights context. It’s not just “Can Sara Gordon do it?” It’s also “Should she?”

The social-science research in this area is sparse and was, for most of the 20th century, far from elucidating. In 1978, a paper showed that “retarded young mothers” were more controlling and punitive with their kids than a control group; in 1984, researchers working with a very small sample of “mothers with mental retardation” found that these women were significantly less sensitive to their children than mothers in any other group except for those already determined to have abused or neglected their kids. They were often interfering and intrusive while their babies played and generally non-responsive to their children’s cues.

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