March 23, 1995 in Nation/World

No Rights To Child A Mildly Retarded Mother Is Denied The Right To Keep Her Daughter

William Miller Staff writer
 

Angel Harper’s dream of motherhood dissolved into heartache Wednesday.

A Spokane County judge terminated the mildly mentally retarded woman’s parental rights, clearing the way for her toddler’s adoption.

Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen praised Harper’s dogged determination to raise 2-year-old Jessica by herself but decided the child might be neglected without support services that don’t exist.

Eitzen will decide later where Jessica belongs: with her aunt in Virginia or with the Spokane foster parents who have raised her since she began to crawl.

Harper emerged from the courtroom trembling and in tears. She was consoled by friends, family members and advocates.

“The Angel I know will probably grieve, then pull herself up by her bootstraps,” said her most vocal ally, Sandie Bledsoe of The Arc of Spokane.

“She believed in her heart that she could be a good mother, and she wasn’t about to give up.”

Harper’s IQ put her in legal limbo. She lost her child because she was labeled mentally retarded, but she was considered too intelligent to qualify for the state help she needed to care for her baby.

Her struggle symbolizes the plight of thousands of mentally retarded adults in Washington who take an unsteady next step toward independence and become parents.

Help for these families is scarce, making child-protection officials leery. Many children like Harper’s are permanently removed from their homes every year, experts say.

“I used all the power I had,” Harper said, “but they don’t see the inside of me - only the outside.

“I would never do anything to hurt my child. It’s unfair, because I deserved a chance. Everyone deserves a chance to raise their own kids. It doesn’t matter what their IQ is.”

The four-day parental fitness trial was closed to the public. Attorneys declined to comment afterward except to praise the judge for her “fairness and compassion.”

Harper’s fight began during her pregnancy, when counselors urged her to either have an abortion or give the baby up for adoption.

Angry and confused, she triggered alarm bells when she told a doctor she would kill herself before surrendering her child.

Harper, 26, gave birth to her daughter at Sacred Heart Medical Center, but within hours the baby was in protective custody. The single mother left the hospital empty-handed.

Over the next 26 months, mother and child were allowed to see each other once a week, in a small government office, under strict supervision.

To prove herself fit, Harper enrolled in parenting classes, attended anger-management counseling, landed a job scrubbing pots at a McDonald’s, got a restraining order against a bothersome boyfriend, endured a gauntlet of psychological examinations and skills assessments.

In the end, it wasn’t enough.

State reports repeatedly cited Harper’s below-normal intelligence (her IQ is around 80), periodic bouts of depression, and the sex abuse she suffered as a child, as reasons for concern.

Bledsoe strongly disagreed. She has spent countless hours with Harper over the past two years.

Harper’s advocates said the experts hired by the state to evaluate the woman invested only a few hours. Most have no specific training in dealing with persons with mental retardation, they said.

“She’s grown tremendously in two years, and nobody’s noticing that,” Bledsoe complained. “There seems to be confusion over ‘slow learning’ and ‘no learning.”’

But child-protection officials weren’t celebrating the ruling in the Harper case.

“I’ve had social workers shedding tears over this case,” said Roy Harrington, regional administrator for Children and Family Services in Spokane.

“The collective opinion is that Miss Harper is a genuinely nice person. People genuinely care about her, and she genuinely cares about this kid,” he said. “…But it is our job to examine what is best for the child.”

Harrington said his agency shouldn’t be blamed for Harper’s heartbreak. If people care, they should demand that legislators increase spending for needed support services.

Instead, the state budget for social services is being slashed.

“This isn’t a case of bad old CPS ripping the child out of this mom’s arms,” Harrington said. “That’s not the real issue.”

Now that Harper’s parental rights have ended, the next step is for the judge to decide who should adopt Jessica.

Social workers recommend permanent placement of Jessica with the foster parents, citing emotional bonds between them.

But Harrington promised that such an adoption would be open, with the natural mother guaranteed at least a couple of visits a year.

“It is our belief, at a bottom-line level, that this child and her biological mother need to maintain ties,” he said.

Harper wants her older sister, Connie Engleman, 32, of Virginia Beach, Va., to adopt Jessica.

Engleman, married with two children of her own, said Jessica should remain with her blood relatives.

“A child that age will adapt,” she said. “I feel family should be able to take care of family.”


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