A 2012 study by the National Council on Disability found that up to 80 percent of American parents with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) will lose custody of their children to relatives or child welfare services. Worse, two-thirds of child welfare laws allow courts to deem parents unfit on account of their I/DD diagnosis, alone. The report goes on to note that in every state, a parent’s disability is permitted as a deciding factor in custody determinations even if that disability has not resulted in any apparent harm.
To help people with I/DD retain their parental rights—and upend a disturbing trend--YAI launched the Parents with Special Needs (PWSN) program. Since 1995, PWSN has empowered parents through one-to-one instruction and community-based support and skills groups.
Chris Chronopoulos, a man with autism enrolled in PWSN, remembers the exact moment Diane Weaver came into his life.
“I was asleep at my desk in middle school when I woke up to the sound of a girl crying,” he said. “As soon as I got up, I knew I needed to go over and see if she needed help.”
What Weaver needed was a friend, and in Chronopoulos she found one. From that day forward, the pair were all but inseparable on the journey from puppy love to deep friendship to true romance.
Seventeen years after that first meeting, the couple welcomed their son, Steven Thor Chronopoulos, to the world in May 2019.
Today, the family is thriving with the support of friends, family, and YAI. But their happy story is a striking exception in a society that often deprives parents with I/DD of the right to raise their own children.
Parents enrolled in PWSN are paired with a professional clinician who conducts an in-home assessment of the family’s support needs and then tailors the curriculum accordingly. Classes take place once or twice a week for up to a year and cover everything from basic skills like feeding, changing diapers, and checking for illness, to financial and stress management.
“With this intensive support, we ensure that children are safe, cared for, and the parents have the support they need to provide the best and most stable care possible,” said Rocio Ruiz, Senior Coordinator of YAI’s Community and Family Services. “Most of all, we can keep families like Chris and Diane’s together and prevent seizure by child protective services.”
As for Chronopoulos and Weaver, Ruiz said that their drive to be model parents led them to be especially proactive about participating in YAI’s PWSN program.
“They enrolled the same week that Steven was born,” she said. “They’re so eager to demonstrate that they are good parents. They’ve been really open to all the teachings and you can see how much of it they’ve taken in. It’s been wonderful to see that little boy grow up — they are so excited and proud to have him. I believe we will continue to see them become more and more independent and show that, with some support, people with I/DD can raise their own children and be great parents.”
Currently, Chronopoulos and Weaver take classes twice a week. Once they complete the program, they will have access to additional support on an as-needed basis and are free to participate in PWSN’s weekly parental support and skills groups for as long as they wish.
According to the couple, knowing they can rely on YAI for practical and emotional support fills them with confidence that they can give Steven the childhood he deserves and inspire him to embody the strength of his middle name, Thor.
“Diane and I didn’t always have the best time growing up, so we want to give Steven a better life than what we had,” Chronopoulos said. “I want to show him that everything in the world can be his if he’s open to it. I want to teach him that, even though there may be ugliness and hatred and lack of acceptance in the world, there’s optimism, too, and so much to learn. With help, your children can flourish. That’s what we want for Steven.”