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 Disabled mom fighting to keep her son

Misc. ArticlesKaney O'Neill knows she has limiits as a mother. The 31-year-old Des Plaines woman cannot walk, move her fingers independently or feel anything from the chest down. A decade ago, O'Neill was a Navy airman apprentice when she was knocked from a balcony during Hurricane Floyd, leaving her a quadriplegic.

When she discovered she was pregnant last December, she felt fear and joy, a journey the Tribune chronicled in August. She quickly embraced the opportunity to raise a child, feeling she had the money and family support to make up for her paralysis.

David Trais, her ex-boyfriend and the 49-year-old father of their now 5-month-old son, disagreed that she was up to the challenge.

In September, Trais sued O'Neill for full custody, charging that his former girlfriend is "not a fit and proper person" to care for their son, Aidan James O'Neill.

In court documents, Trais said O'Neill's disability "greatly limits her ability to care for the minor, or even wake up if the minor is distressed."

O'Neill counters that she always has another able-bodied adult on hand for Aidan -- be it her full-time caretaker, live-in brother or her mother. Even before she gave birth to Aidan, O'Neill said, she never went more than a few hours by herself.

The custody case, expected back before Cook County Judge Patricia Logue next month, raises profound questions about what rights disabled parents have to care for their own children.

Ella Callow, the director of legal programs for the National Center for Parents with Disabilities and their Families, said disabled parents are incorrectly "perceived as unable to perform to standard."

"No judge wants to be the judge who sends a child home when the child gets hurt," said Callow, of the Berkeley, Calif.-based advocacy group.

Callow said the bias against disabled parents is such that judges tend to grant custody to an able-bodied partner "even if they have a history that might usually be a heavy mark against them -- not having been in the child's life, a history of violence, etc."

Trais declined to comment to the Tribune when reached by phone. His attorney did not return repeated calls for comment.

But Howard LeVine, a Tinley Park attorney not affiliated with the case, said Trais' concerns are legitimate and may hold legal weight.

"Certainly, I sympathize with the mom, but assuming both parties are equal (in other respects), isn't the child obviously better off with the father?"

LeVine, who has specialized in divorce and custody cases for the last 40 years, pointed out that O'Neill would likely not be able to teach her son to write, paint or play ball. "What's the effect on the child -- feeling sorry for the mother and becoming the parent?"

On a recent morning, O'Neill's caretaker, Sasha Davidiuk, propped Aidan on a pillow in O'Neill's lap and O'Neill held her son. She has full use of her biceps muscles.

When his bottle fell from his mouth, or tipped the wrong way, Davidiuk stepped in to reposition it.

The two worked in tandem, with Davidiuk heading up duties that require manual dexterity -- like changing diapers -- and O'Neill focused more on emotional engagement. When Aidan burst into tears, for example, O'Neill was the one to sooth him with a soft rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

In addition to Davidiuk, O'Neill's brother, an ex-Marine, lives in an apartment attached to her home. O'Neill's mother helps on weekends and the family keeps Pele, a yellow lab service dog, who can open doors, turn on lights and pick up stuffed animals.

Her immaculate, one-story home is filled with photos of Aidan. Her son's room, painted sherbet green and decorated with cheerful zoo animals, has a specially modified changing table and crib that allows for O'Neill's wheelchair.



 
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