A statement on welcome and justice for people with disabilities by U.S. Roman Catholic bishops affirms, “Often families are not prepared for the birth of a child with a disability or the development of impairments. Our pastoral response is to become informed about disabilities and to offer ongoing support to the family and welcome to the child.”
Often when a child with a disability comes into a family, whether by birth or by adoption, the parents are not ready for the emotional, spiritual, and practical changes they must make to care for their new child well. Amazingly, the bishops anticipate this need and challenge church leaders to be prepared for just this challenge so that the church is ready to help a family when the family itself feels so unprepared.
One good example of being prepared is to help parents through the stresses that occur on the marriage when they face parenting a child with a disability. A study conducted several years ago found that couples with a child with Down syndrome had a lower divorce rate than the general population, if, and this is critical, they stayed together for the first two years after the child is born. The highest proportion of divorces in couples with a child who has Down syndrome occurred in the first two years after the child was born.
In this study, we examined the nature, timing, and correlates of divorce in families of children with Down syndrome (647), other birth defects (10,283) and no identified disability (361,154). Divorce rates among families of children with Down syndrome were lower than in the other two groups. When divorce did occur in the Down syndrome group, however, a higher proportion occurred within the first 2 years after the child's birth. Mothers and fathers of children with Down syndrome were much more likely to divorce if they were younger, had not graduated from high school, and if fathers were less educated and lived in a rural area. Few effects on divorce were noted for a variety of family structure variables. (Richard C. Urbano, Robert M. Hodapp and Frank Floyd. "Divorce in Families of Children With Down Syndrome: A Population-Based Study." American Journal on Mental Retardation: July 2007, Vol. 112, No. 4, pp. 261-274.)
Here’s where the church can play a critical role in family life. Church leaders can surround that couple with love and encouragement as they grieve the child they had been hoping to have and grow to love the child in their arms.
Pastors and church leaders may rightly object, “We can’t possibly prepare for all eventualities that could happen with regard to caring for people.”
And that would be right. I served in parish ministry for 17 years before becoming the director of Disability Concerns. I experienced myself and had many colleagues say to me, “Well, we never learned about this in seminary.” Life throws all kinds of challenges at people, and pastors cannot prepare for them all. However, considering that about 20 percent of the population lives with disabilities, pastors and church leaders must expect that people with disabilities will be part of their congregations, and they must help their congregations come to expect the presence of people with disabilities among them.
Learning about care for couples face who have a child who has a disability would be a very good place to start.