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Monday, May 4, 2015

A Devoted Black Father is Denied the Right to Parent His Own Children — Because He Is Blind

— Defying sterotypes, then shot down by a biased judge. —

Christopher G. Roberts

Christopher G. Roberts, a blind father, and his children playing in the park.

New York, NY — The right of the natural parent to the care and custody of his or her child is considered a fundamental right in the United States. In spite of that, a New York Kings County Supreme Judge in Brooklyn has slammed the door on an American father’s right to parent is own children – solely it seems because he is blind. The judge, in this case, would insert “able” and in particular “sighted” in front of “natural parent.” “No vision, no children” sums up the Court’s decision, upturning decades of civil rights progress and common sense.

Despite Christopher G. Roberts serving as his son and daughter’s primary caretaker, when he found himself in front of Justice Eric I. Prus, the judge informed him that because the children were young (then 3 and 2), and Mr. Roberts was blind – the judge was concerned about the children being “protected from any hazard.” The judge told Mr. Roberts that it was important for “someone to be there” asserting that Mr. Roberts was less than a full person, not quite a “someone” in the judge’s eyes. Remarkably, the judge conditioned Mr. Robert’s time with his children be supervised by a sighted nanny who Mr. Roberts was to hire at his own expense. Even though Mr. Roberts was once a primary caretaker, the judge chose to allow him a scant seventeen (17) hours of time with his children – and then with each second “supervised.” Such is the horror that unfolded on May 9th, 2014.

Though we have become accustomed to – and even desensitized to – custody disputes as 50% of US marriages end in divorce; in this case there was no mud-slinging in May. In fact, Mr. Roberts’ wife never even had to testify nor say a word that day. Nor were there any records by any agency be it social services or the police, nor from the children’s pediatricians or teachers, suggesting that Mr. Robert’s children had ever been endangered because their father was blind. Interestingly enough, Mr. Roberts was a highly sought-after teacher in the arts where he has taught over 2,000 children from preschool through 12th grade in the NYC area. Instead of needing judicial rescue, Mr. Robert’s children were both well cared-for, gifted, living in Park Slope attending private pre-school – a lifestyle provided for by their blind father. Nonetheless, the judge ordered “family intervention” sending social services to the home – they found nothing – and ordered all of the children’s time with their father be “supervised” by a sighted nanny. Had Mr. Roberts been unable to pay for a sighted nanny he would have been unable to see his children – the children he had been raising – at all.

Somehow the fact that tens of thousands of blind parents raise their children every day without “sighted supervision” was lost to the judge. It is hard to tell how Mr. Roberts’ race (black) and gender (as the father, not the mother) played into his biased decision. Perhaps stereotypes about all of these traits continues to play a hand in this case.

The worldview undergirding the view that blind people are not capable of parenting takes us back to a dark time of US history where eugenics and moral laziness, prescribed involuntary sterilization for those persons deemed “lesser than” not fully “someone.”

Still in 2015, laws have had to be proposed from New York to South Carolina to ensure that blind parents’ children are not denied their natural parents even as an estimated 4 million parents with disabilities raise their children. To ensure that blind parents’ children are not denied custody because they are unsighted, laws have been proposed in a number of jurisdictions. In the NY state legislature in 2014, New York bill A09371 was introduced by then assembly-member Joan Millman to revise the Family Court Act to prohibit custody decisions solely on the basis of blindness. After the bill was introduced it was referred to the judiciary where no further action was taken. Also in 2014 assembly member Barbara Clark introduced bill A09223 to revise New York’s Domestic Relations Law to likewise prohibit custody decisions solely on the basis of blindness. Neither bill has been passed yet – but Mr. Robert’s case shows how crucial such legislation is sadly to simply preserve one of blind parents’ basic human rights – the right to the care and custody of one’s own natural children.

Almost a year has passed since Mr. Roberts’ parental rights were stripped – he remains resolved to fully restoring his parental rights. Though he was once a primary caretaker of his children, he now sees them for only 17 hours each week – even then his time is “supervised” by a sighted nanny who he has been ordered to employ. Mr. Roberts also remains physically blind, but many argue that it is the judge who cannot see.

 

About Christopher G. Roberts:
Christopher G. Roberts has over 23 years of experience in professional theatre. He is the Founder and Producing Artistic Director of Steppingstone Theatre Company (SSTC), a not-for-profit arts organization. He has an MFA degree in acting from Brooklyn College and a BA degree in theater from the University at Buffalo. As an actor, he has appeared on television in shows such as “OZ,” “Sex in the City,” “What Would You Do,” in national network commercials, as well as on several daytime dramas. In addition, his regional and international credits include Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, Exile Theater in Northern Ireland and The Manhattan Theater Club.

Christopher is also a playwright; his first full-length play, Reflections of a Heart: The Isaac Woodard Story, was produced off-Broadway at The Clurmen Theatre in June 2010. During his tenure as a director and teacher for various arts institutions and public schools, he has taught over 2,000 children from grades pre-K through 12. Christopher was the Head Accessibility Consultant for Broadway productions such as: Finean’s Rainbow (’09), The Miracle Worker (‘10), and Catch Me If You Can (’11).

He is also a proud and active member of The Performers with Disabilities Guild and the National Federation of the Blind. Christopher is also featured with one of his two longtime mentors, Stephen McKinley Henderson, as well as with other various well known artists in the groundbreaking book, Acting Teachers of America: A Vital Tradition. Christopher was the Assistant Director for Julliard’s acclaimed production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, directed by his other mentor, the late Israel Hicks. Christopher’s current and most important role to date is that of a loving and devoted father to his children.

 

Additional Information:
1) www.inclusioninthearts.org/projects/national-diversity-forum/opinion-pieces/christopher-g-roberts/

2) Parenting Without Sight: What Attorneys and Social Workers Should Know about Blindness:
www.nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/brochures/blindparents/parentingwithoutsight.html

3) Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children:
www.ncd.gov/publications/2012/Sep272012/

4) Christopher Roberts with his children, 0-3 years old:
www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFG5KGEvK4o

 

PRESS CONTACT:
Chris Danielsen, NFB Press Director
cdanielsen@nfb.org
410-659-9314 x2330

Christopher G. Roberts
awesomeblinddad@gmail.com
917-375-3444
Twitter: @AwesomeBlindDad

 

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