Parents Without Power : Tiffany Callo lost her 2 sons when social workers questioned whether the disabled mother could care for them. Her story may fuel debate over family values, the right to be a parent.


In the poker game of life, Tiffany Callo got only bum deals.

As a toddler, the San Jose woman was found to have cerebral palsy. The condition--a poorly understood collection of central nervous system disorders--left Callo with partial use of her arms and hands and almost no use of her legs. She got her first wheelchair when she was 5.

Her father drifted from job to job and lost custody of her. Her mother was a drug user who split when Tiffany was 3 months old. Subsequently, another woman in her father's life abused her, once beating her with a pizza paddle and stuffing soiled sheets into her mouth. While living in a group home as a teen-ager, she was raped, became pregnant and had a miscarriage.

The worst was yet to come.

At 19, she fell in love with a man who also was disabled. She got pregnant. But the first glow of love soon faded. After the child was born, her husband was moody, withdrawn and abusive. He hit her with his fists and a stick.

As her marriage disintegrated, social workers took her 3-week-old son, David, who had no disability, because her volunteer live-in helper couldn't stand the domestic turmoil and left. Then she discovered she was pregnant again. Although the pregnancy, like the first, was unplanned, and despite the odds against keeping the child, she decided she wanted the baby anyway. But while they were still in the hospital, Jesse, who also had no birth defects, was taken by social workers who cited concerns about the infant's general safety with a mother who could not pick up the child unassisted.

The loss of her two children made Callo fighting mad. If there was one thing she was sure of, it was this: She was a good mother. She had learned the importance of patience and kindness the hard way. All she needed was a chance to prove it. She decided to fight it out with the help of a court-appointed attorney.

Ultimately, though, the weight of the Santa Clara County child welfare system wore her down and Callo abandoned her custody fight. David and Jesse were given up for adoption in June, 1988.

With election-year rhetoric about "family values" reaching ear-shattering levels, the story of Tiffany Callo--fraught with ambiguity and populated with less than perfect characters--promises to stretch yet again this country's concept of family and who has a right to have--and keep--children. True, the issue of the reproductive rights of the disabled has been debated fitfully, but Callo's example may take the argument to a new level. In fact, some see her case as leading the next phase of the disability rights movement, which until now has targeted other areas such as education and jobs.

As Callo once bitterly noted, "If I wasn't handicapped, they would not dare to take any of my babies away. And yet they give drug addicts second chances and third chances with their kids."

While Callo's cause seems to have gathered a lion's share of public sentiment, not everyone believes she should have kept her children. The San Jose Mercury News printed a letter from one reader who said: "It may sound humanitarian to write about the needs of the handicapped adult who is working harder than most of us to be an independent, contributing member of society, but unfortunately Tiffany and the baby's father are permanently and severely handicapped and never will be independent or contributing."

The case also raises volatile questions about child-care policy. Callo is financially strapped. She and her second husband, who has scoliosis, a congenital curvature of the spine, live mainly on disability benefits. If she were to have another child, as she hopes to some day, she would need in-home assistance. Should state regulations be changed so that such help is paid for by the state? (A bill inspired by Callo and designed to do exactly this was killed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian in 1988, although the state Senate and Assembly passed it overwhelmingly. Supporters argued that in-home help for the disabled would ultimately prove cheaper than foster care.)

Although she gave up the fight to keep her sons, Callo continues to see herself as a crusader fighting for the rights of disabled parents. And she is poised to take her crusade to a national audience. Her platform is a new book, "A Mother's Touch: The Tiffany Callo Story" by Jay Mathews, a former Washington Post correspondent in Los Angeles.

The book's publication is timed to coincide with the second anniversary of President Bush's signing of the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act, which takes effect today. Callo is embarking on a seven-city tour. Plans include a public hearing in Michigan to highlight the plight of a couple with disabilities whose child may be taken from them.

To prepare for the tour, Callo and husband, Teddy Brazil, came to Los Angeles on a shopping trip underwritten by publisher Henry Holt.

This rare excursion beyond San Jose had its frustrations. Callo was forced to catch a later flight because she ran afoul of airline regulations. After getting lost in the airport and arriving at the gate only five minutes before departure, airline officials told her people with wheelchairs had to arrive at least half an hour before flight time. The incident triggered Callo's combativeness. In a heated exchange with airline employees, she recalls telling one, "You ought to see your boyfriend more often."

But once here, Callo exhibited the enthusiasm and good cheer that impressed author Mathews and charmed talk-show hosts Phil Donahue and the usually crusty Joel Spivak, as well as the media in San Jose.

"Tiffany's one of the most self-possessed, imaginative and gregarious people I've ever met," said Mathews, now a Newsweek magazine correspondent in New York.

She was also earnest and serious, occasionally verging on tears as she recounted the loss of her children. While she talked, her husband sat at her side. They met when she worked briefly at a telephone sales business staffed by people with disabilities. The couple confided that they would like to have a child but are holding off because they are worried that it might be taken from them.

Callo believes another child would fill a void in her life. Nearly six years after the birth of her first son she often experiences a loneliness that cannot be erased solely by her second marriage.

"Sometimes I get so sick of being alone I go and knock on the next-door neighbor's door and say, 'Hey would you like an hour off? I'll baby-sit (your kids),' " she said.

Even with the diversions stemming from the book, Callo finds herself thinking often of her sons. A glance at her wristwatch can make her wonder what her children are doing at that moment.

"I often look at my watch," she said, turning her wrist with a slightly awkward movement. "Hmmm. It's 4 o clock. I wonder if they're playing with their toys. I wonder what they're doing . . . "

Both Callo's sons were born without complications and the babies required no special care. In fact, Callo's labor with Jesse was over before the ambulance arrived to take her to the hospital--she delivered at home. Those relatively easy deliveries stand in sharp contrast to her own beginnings: Callo was born three months prematurely. Immediately after birth she stopped breathing for three minutes. A day or two later doctors determined that she had jaundice. All three circumstances have been linked to cerebral palsy, which was diagnosed when Tiffany was 18 months old.

For Callo, the condition means her lower body cannot support her weight, although she has feeling in her legs. She also has bad hand-eye coordination. But Callo is not mentally impaired, as is often assumed about people with cerebral palsy.

"A Mother's Touch" is in part a passionate argument that popular misconceptions about cerebral palsy contributed to Callo losing her sons. In one instance, an agency that tested Callo just assumed she was retarded because she had cerebral palsy, Matthews reports. He also asserts that social workers and psychologists were prejudiced against Callo.

Callo herself sees prejudice at work. The fact that her sons were healthy made them perfect for adoption, she asserts. "It was basically a setup," she said. "They wanted to put my kids on the market."

Because child welfare workers are prohibited by law from publicly discussing child welfare cases, the reasons behind the removal of Jesse and David are not clear. The available evidence suggests that no malice was involved and that workers were genuinely concerned about the well-being of the children. But that same evidence also suggests that everyone involved tended to see what he or she wanted to see.

For instance, a videotape of Callo caring for David was cited by both her supporters and social workers who wanted the baby removed from the home. In that tape, still under court seal, Callo's supporters saw a loving mother who cooed to her baby and took enormous pains to please it. Social workers maintained the tape showed a woman who had trouble diapering a baby and placed it in potential danger.

The best evidence presenting both sides of the story is a transcript--obtained by Mathews--of a crucial court hearing in which Santa Clara County social workers and psychologists testified about the removal of Callo's two sons. In that transcript, social workers and psychologists cited Callo's limited physical strength and dexterity as well as concerns about her psychological makeup.

They also cited a battery of psychological tests that purported to show that Callo had paranoid and manic tendencies.

Each of these points was disputed by Callo's attorney, who argued that tests and observations designed for able-bodied people were not necessarily appropriate for disabled people.

The court also heard testimony on behalf of Callo. One expert testified that babies seem to adapt to their parents' disabilities, noting that infants seem to be less impatient with parents who have trouble changing diapers. The expert also said older children apparently respond more quickly when called by a disabled parent.

It was during this hearing that Callo decided she could not win the court fight and gave up her children for adoption.

Even though the legal wrangling is over, the case still may cast a long shadow.

For one thing, Mathews asserts that such cases are likely to become more common. More and more babies with disabilities are surviving into adulthood, he writes, and more and more of them will want to have children of their own.

And in the last 20 years, people with disabilities have flocked to the independent living movement which seeks to mainstream them into all aspects of living. Among other things, activists have fought to change the way they are talked about by abhorring such terms as handicapped . (About 42 million Americans have some form of disability, ranging from mild to severe.)

Thus, Mathews argues, the disability rights movement is ripe for a symbolic cases like Callo's that push the limits on disability rights.

"By having two children and insisting on her right to keep them, by lacking the private financial resources that kept most disabled parents out of the reach of the juvenile courts, Tiffany Callo was about to thrust the disability rights movement deeper into American life than it had ever gone before," he noted.

Barbara Faye Waxman, a Los Angeles disability policy consultant, credits Callo with "bringing the issue of disabled parents rights to the disability rights movement."

Until now, Waxman explained, that movement has been too busy on such basic fronts as jobs and education to have "the luxury to deal with our rights as families, our right to get married, our right to privacy and our right to sexuality."

With rare exceptions, she added, courts have sided with child welfare agencies or able-bodied parents when the issue of parents with disabilities moved into the legal arena.

"What Tiffany and Teddy are going through is what disabled people have always gone through--we've had our children taken from us," Waxman said.

When Callo agreed to give up her children for adoption, she was supposed to be able to visit David and Jesse, now 5 1/2 and 4 1/2, twice a year. She saw Jesse last year, she said, but has not seen David in nearly three years. Callo is reluctant to discuss the reasons because she might have to go to court to have visitations restored.

Callo is pleased with Jesse's adoptive parents, who are better off and better educated than she. Jesse "will have all of the opportunities in education that his real father and I never had," she says.

When a reporter suggested that raising two children might have worn her down, she disagreed vigorously. Her disability, she said, gave her all the time in the world to spend with her children.

"Parents don't value the time they have with their children," she said. "They want to stick their children off in some room or watching TV. That garbage isn't healthy. If you want the kid to learn, you've got to teach them the good things."

Clearly, Callo stores away every rare tidbit about her absent sons. Recently she learned that Jesse "took his adopted dad's golf club and hid it because he wanted a set of golf clubs of his own," she says. "They tell me they kinda had to scold him a little bit . . . They're really good to Jesse."

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