Saturday, September 24, 2022

#AutisticWhileBlack: The Case of Aisha X

Stock image of a mother and
Infant son.
What does an African American Muslim woman do when several years into a legal battle against an abusive ex with documented deep seeded rage issues for custody of her firstborn son, she learns her younger son is autistic, she is autistic, and she lives in a county where the Family Courts have a researched and documented bias against women in family court cases?

The relief of finally understanding who she is is crushed with fear of yet another layer of retaliation from both the devout Christian family of her ex, who never approved of her and a court that now has ableism to add to their bias against her.

This is Aisha X's dilemma.

Aisha X, given an alias here to protect her from further retaliation, is alone at the intersection of public policy, racialized ableism, structural misogyny, and Islamophobia.

Aisha is one of the many Maryland women who have lived the reality of a system in which family court has favored her son's abusive father over her, as DCist/WAMU reported in research here: and NPR reported here: All of which led Maryland State Senator Susan Lee to draft Senate Bill 594 in 2020 here.

In July of 2020, NPR published a DCist/WAMU report of research that showed Aisha X's case of a judge favoring her son's abusive father over her in her custody battle was not unusual. The study found that judges favored fathers over mothers in custody battles over children in Maryland–even when fathers were accused of or found guilty of abuse. Quoting NPR:

Professor Joan Meier at George Washington University Law School, and other researchers, provided data supporting the group's recommendations. Meier's research shows that when a mother is accused of alienation, she is twice as likely to lose custody compared to when she is not. But in cases where a father claimed a mother was pitting a child against him to disparage his character, Meier found a judge ruled that the mother's claims of child abuse were unsubstantiated. The study looked at more than 2,000 custody cases involving child abuse, domestic violence, and alienation nationwide.

In Aisha X's case, her diagnosis and faith differences were weaponized to push things in her abusive ex's favor. Her fight for custody of her son is an uphill battle that continues as I write this.

Ironically, in 2016 Maryland Bill SB 765, CINA, Guardianship, Adoption, Custody, and Visitation - Disability of Parent, Guardian, Custodian, or Party, was signed into law.

On paper, the law is supposed to protect disabled parents from discrimination in child custody disputes. Disability Rights Maryland praised the bill's passage as follows:

SB 765 will protect people with disabilities and their families from discrimination in private custody, visitation, adoption and guardianship proceedings by requiring any findings that a person’s disability affects the best interest of a child to be recorded in writing; allowing the party with a disability to show that supportive parenting services would prevent such finding; placing the burden of proof on the party alleging that the disability affects the child’s best interest; and conforming the Family Code definition of “disability” to federal law. DRM was pleased to work with National Federation of the Blind, People on the Go, The Arc Maryland, Maryland Association of Centers for Independent Living, other members of the Maryland Disability Rights Coalition, the National Council on Disability, and bill sponsors Senator Jamie Raskin & Delegate Sandy Rosenberg on this groundbreaking legislation.

This bill was created and initially championed by the physical disability community. Despite being meant to protect all disabled parents and preserve their families, its promise in practice does not seem to be helping those with invisible or intellectual disabilities like Aisha X. Her decade long fight was further complicated by her late autism diagnosis. No organization in the autism or disability justice community has stepped up to help her fight for her right to be the custodial parent of her firstborn son. 

One of the unspoken realities in the autism conversation is that many parents of autistic children are diagnosed late. Especially BIPOC women, who are too frequently overlooked or misdiagnosed, can live for years not understanding their disability is ASD. Some African American parents go undiagnosed until one of their kids is diagnosed or they recognize certain traits in themselves that leads them to an eventual diagnosis. Yet neither disability justice groups nor any stakeholder in the autism conversation has expanded their circles of support to include adults like Aisha X and their families. Like many autism-related service systems, legal services are early intervention and childhood centric. Proper legal representation from a team that understands autistic adults can mean the difference between losing one's custodial rights and keeping them. A judge not having any clue about what autism is and how it impacts a plaintiff can see direct responses as brusque or rude. This escalates bias against autistic parents in court.

But here's the critical point of Aisha X's late diagnosis. A competent parent doesn't suddenly become incompetent when they are told they have always been autistic. Systemic ableism drives systemic presumptions of incompetence, and that injustice can lead to courts missing the obvious red flags of abusive nondisabled spouses/ex-partners wanting sole custody of children and ruling against disabled parents.

Ernestine Bunn Dyson, Doreen M. McClendon, Yvette Cade, Freda Edwards, and Jackie M. Lewis were victims of domestic violence who were failed by Prince George's (PG) County's court system despite laws supposedly put in place to protect them and their children. Yvette and Freda were burned alive by their abusers but survived. Ernestine, Doreen, and Jackie were murdered. All reported physical and emotional abuse to authorities, some of whom either dismissed the signs of abuse or claimed they didn't have sufficient cause to justify restraining orders.

Possible Faith-Based Causes of PG County's High Domestic Violence Rates

Aisha X's case was initially being tried in PG County. One cause of this ongoing issue of high rates of domestic violence put forward by Christian community activists in PG County was that biblical scriptures were weaponized to justify the demand that women must be submissive to men. This concern led to local clergy deciding to work within church congregations to clarify the scripture to reduce the amount of faith-based domestic violence in the County. But this approach to the County's systemic domestic violence issue is exclusionary and limits the scope of outreach to one faith-based congregation. I am saddened that these activists didn't reach out to all other faith communities and humanist organizations, meet with domestic violence victims and make transformative change an inclusive, county-wide process. Notably absent in these efforts was any mention of disabled women like Aisha X, who experience domestic violence by an intimate partner at higher rates than their nondisabled peers.

Activists, by definition, should be at the vanguard of informing and training members of the Family Court system about the high rate of domestic abuse of disabled women. But if faith-based bias is already in the decision-making process of a judicial system, what hope do Aisha X and others have of being believed, much less arguing their cases?

 A recent judgment by A Texas judge who ruled coverage of anti-HIV medicine violates religious freedom is a grim reminder that far-right groups have negatively influenced our justice system. This shift in the bias towards cases arguing for religious freedom superseding the human rights to healthcare and a safe family environment for women and children defy secularism as the law of the land. These increasingly extreme and unpopular court decisions debunk the myth that family preservation is an excuse to deny women in PG County restraining orders and the right to be custodial parents of their children. 

In cases like Aisha X's, where two parents fighting for custody don't share the same faith, but an abusive parent and their family may share the same faith as people who play critical roles in the Family Court system, bias can destroy the case before any judicial decision. Little things, like deliberately sending a court summons to the Muslim parent's old address, can cause that parent to look as if they are irresponsible.   Religious freedom, one of our Constitution's founding principles, was meant to allow all religions or nonbelief to exist without the persecution religious groups fled from in the first place. If those who drafted the Constitution wanted to declare the United States of America a Christian nation, they would have stated that in the document. 

The right to practice one's religion or no religion isn't meant to be used as a misogynistic cudgel. And yet Aisha X's situation is another example that the weaponizing of any belief towards a bias against marginalized people is a violation of the human rights that were supposed to make the American experiment singular in its humane approach to its citizens. 

Aisha X and many others are caught at the intersections of public policy, religious misogyny, the hierarchy of disability bias in public policy practice, and systemic ableism. Aisha X's case is so shocking that I am considering supporting a mutual aid drive to raise funds for her continued fight to gain her custodial rights. 


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