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An able ally for parents

A Denver mom is legally blind, in a wheelchair and determined to keep her children. As a lawyer, she battles for others in similar spots.

March 05, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

Denver — CARRIE Ann Lucas is confined to a wheelchair. She breathes with the aid of a ventilator. She cannot hear and can see only at close range.

She begins most days about 4 a.m. with newspapers and e-mails. About 5:30, she wakes her three disabled daughters. She and an aide dress the two who use wheelchairs. The girls cannot feed themselves, so Lucas and the aide plug feeding tubes into their bellies. She pours cereal for the one daughter who can eat on her own. She puts the girls on their school buses, the last leaving by 7:10.

Lucas cherishes these mornings, tough as they are, because she knows how hard it is to keep a family together.

She is one of a handful of attorneys in the country whose specialty is representing disabled parents like herself. Her mission: making sure they get the same chance as everyone else to be moms and dads.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15% of all parents with children in the household have some disability. These parents are far more likely to have the government try to take their children away. Even Lucas lives in fear that social services may seize her children. She knows the sorrow of losing a child -- a 7-year-old girl whom she wanted to adopt was taken from her after a difficult court fight.

"I love my kids so much and I love being a parent so much, and I know my [clients] do too," said Lucas, 35, a wisecracking woman who once wrote an essay titled "one of the many joys of crip parenting."

"My clients have fought and fought and fought" to raise their children, she said. Her brassy voice wobbled as her eyes watered behind her tinted glasses. "It's just discrimination."

Lucas works her cases out of a seventh-floor office at the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition in central Denver. The walls are papered with magazine articles about disabled parents. A bumper sticker in the shape of a shark that reads "Lawyer" is prominently displayed. More disabled people seek help from the coalition than Lucas, who carries about a dozen cases at a time, can handle.

Among those she has worked with was a deaf woman in suburban Denver, whose two toddlers were taken away and put up for adoption after social workers deemed her an unfit mother because she could not hear her children's cries for attention. Lucas could identify with her -- she sleeps with a sound-activated pager that vibrates when one of her daughters calls for her.

She advised attorneys for a wheelchair-bound mother in Montana who fended off requirements from social services that someone who could walk be in the house 24 hours a day if her kids were to live there.

Another client, a blind woman in Denver, was refused treatment at a fertility clinic because the staff there did not think she could be a proper mother. She was asked: "How are you going to drive your kid to soccer practice?" The woman lost: A jury ruled that the clinic had no obligation to treat her.

"It's really indicative of how people view parents with disabilities," Lucas said.

STILL, Lucas readily acknowledges that some disabled people should not be parents. She herself admits that she's not a perfect parent. "I'm sure there are people who can do a better job than I can," Lucas said. A wealthier mother could afford to stay home with the children, but that wouldn't be a legitimate reason to take them, she said.

"We shouldn't be social-engineering families," Lucas said, "on the basis of things like poverty and disabilities."

The Lucas family lives in a middle-class neighborhood in south Denver, with a huge honey locust tree in the frontyard and a short ramp to the front door. With ample space to turn wheelchairs, all Lucas had to do to make the house accessible was widen doorways to accommodate wheelchairs and lower kitchen and bathroom sinks and


On a recent Sunday afternoon, Lucas wheeled into the living room, where bookshelves overflowed with law books. Propped on a shelf was a stuffed figure of Timmy, a character in a wheelchair from the cartoon "South Park." Heather, the oldest child, lay on the floor. She suffers from a rare condition that has left her deaf, unable to walk or fully sign, and looking far younger than her 16 years. Lucas pivoted Heather to face a box of toys and games, but the teen seemed uninterested. "She's mad about something," Lucas guessed.

In the middle of the room, transfixed by images on the flat-screen television, were Lucas' two other children, Adrianne, 8, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, and Asiza, 11, who has a mild developmental disability. Asiza was bouncing as she watched a singsong segment showing children how to communicate in sign language.

Lucas turned to Adrianne and asked, "Can you sign 'imagination'?" Lucas tickled her daughter, who smiled and turned back to the show.

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