SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- Tiffany Callo was pretty and self-assured. Tony Rios was gruff and intense. The romance began suddenly, surprising both of them, but once they realized they were serious, they talked of having a child. Last March, Antonio David Rios was born: big, healthy, an answer to their prayers.
A month later, Antonio David was gone, taken to a foster home while the social workers and the courts decide whether Rios and Callo should be allowed this great joy in lives that have lacked so much else.
The young lovers, married earlier this month, are poor and permanently disabled. Tony Rios, 34, has juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and congenital defects, including stunted arms. Tiffany Rios, 20, has cerebral palsy. They require wheelchairs for most of their movements and live on federal and state welfare funds.
As a result, Antonio David, a happy, husky 8-month-old with a marked resemblance to his father, may see his parents only for an hour each Saturday morning, while a platoon of attorneys, court officials, doctors and county staffers try to determine the family's future. The issue has become more urgent with the news that Tiffany Rios is due to give birth to their second child in January.
In an era when disabled Americans are demanding, and receiving, more rights and greater opportunities for independence, the Rios family's crisis probably was inevitable. How it is resolved may help determine the extent of the revolution in a once invisible part of society. It may also determine whether the right to have and enjoy children will be extended to this small but growing group.
Specialists in care for the disabled in both Washington and California said this was the first case they had heard of in which a child was removed from a home apparently because of the parents' physical limitations. In several instances, courts have removed children from the homes of mentally disabled parents.
"I believe that the entire juvenile system is being extremely insensitive to the needs and humanity of my client in this matter," said S. Clay Bedford, Tiffany Rios' court-appointed attorney, in a plea for help from the local United Cerebral Palsy Association.
"If they are entitled to the same rights to reproduce as everyone else has, then they should have the right to have some help from the system," said Frances Smith, assistant to the community services director of United Cerebral Palsy Association Inc. in Washington.
In a yellow shoe box, the Rioses keep a treasured letter from Lori Wirthlin, a San Carlos, Calif., woman raised by parents who had cerebral palsy. "I grew up in a loving, caring atmosphere," she said, "and I feel this child deserves the same opportunity."
Leonard P. Edwards, presiding judge of the county juvenile court in charge of the case, indicated he was sympathetic to the Rioses' plight but thought the problem was lack of public money for special care. "The question is, in a world of limited resources, should you devote a large percentage of resources to one family, or do you spread those resources around to a number of families?"
Antonio David, living with a foster mother who has been caring for as many as three other children at the same time, appears to sense who his real parents are. During their weekly hour together, Tony Rios said, "when I call his name, he'll get the biggest smile and this gleam in his eye that pulls on my heart. He just knows my voice."
They never miss a Saturday, although they have no van and must ride their wheelchairs through downtown San Jose for 45 minutes to reach the meeting site, a county social services office.
Tiffany Rios said she was removed from her home temporarily when she was 10, because her alcoholic father was not caring for her properly. Partly for that reason, she said, she rejected her father's recent offer to take her in with her son. Tony Rios said he comes from a family of eight children, but none of his siblings have the resources to help him.
Tiffany Rios said she feels that the Santa Clara County social services department "is trying to make it look like we are children playing an adult game." But their relationship, and their decision to have children, began with the seriousness inherent in people who have had to overcome a great many unusual obstacles.
Before they met in March 1986, they had noticed each other in their downtown San Jose neighborhood. People in wheelchairs stand out. Tiffany Callo, often at odds with her father, was looking for a place to stay. A mutual friend put her in touch with Tony Rios, whose father temporarily had room. Soon after she moved into the Rios household, the romance began and they moved into their own apartment together.
When it became apparent that they both wanted children, they discussed what sort of behavior they expected from each other as parents. Satisfied, they went ahead. "I have a right to have as many children as I want," said Tiffany Rios, recalling their decision. "That is nobody's decision but mine and my husband's."
For a while, it looked as though it might work. Tony Rios' sister moved in with them, and the county authorities agreed she could care for the child. But after a month, Tony Rios and the sister argued, and the sister left.
"She wanted her boyfriend to live with us, but that would have been us and him and her two children. The manager said that was too many people for a one-bedroom apartment," Tony Rios said. "I told the boyfriend he had to leave, and she got mad and left."
The sister was obligated to return Antonio David to county authorities at that point, plunging his parents into months of despair, gloom and bureaucratic struggle.
They share a cramped two-bedroom apartment with Tiffany Rios' attendant, Patricia Smith. Smith, 22, said she would be happy to work full time and care for the baby. "I have to change Tiffany's diapers anyway," she said. But a conviction for armed robbery, she said, would probably bar her from caring for an infant.
According to California law, if some way cannot be found for the boy to live with his parents within 18 months, the court must pursue alternatives, including adoption, that might cut him off from his parents forever.
Just because they are disabled, Tony Rios said, "doesn't mean that we can't have somebody to be our arms and our legs, at least for the first few years of the child's development. But the county doesn't have the money, supposedly, to pay somebody like a nanny."
The Rioses each receive $520 in monthly welfare payments and about 40 hours a week of care from individual, county-paid attendants. Tony Rios, who has a high school education, is looking for a job as a county vehicle dispatcher. And Tiffany Rios, who completed the 10th grade, wants to learn computer programming. But immediate employment is not in sight for either.
"If they were wealthy and had money, they wouldn't have this problem, basically," said Don Barnett, a San Jose attorney appointed by the court to represent Tony Rios in the matter. He and Bedford, representing Tiffany Rios, have suggested pooling the funds available to the couple through various state and federal programs for the disabled and federal Aid for Families with Dependent Children to hire a live-in attendant for parents and children.
The county social services department, which has declined to comment on the case because of privacy rules, has not responded to the suggestion. Tony Rios said he was told the idea might work if they could find subsidized housing.
Assistant county social services director Sylvia Pizzini said she could not comment on a specific case but thinks that state law does not allow a child to be removed simply because the parents are physically disabled. Her department, she said, "would make every effort" to provide resources to keep such a family together.
Megan Kirshbaum, a Berkeley-based expert on parenthood among the disabled, said she could not comment on the Rios family's case but knew of no current programs that provide money so that low-income disabled parents can raise their children.
Deborah Kaplan, an Oakland attorney, uses a cane indoors and a wheelchair outdoors and is married to an engineer who uses a wheelchair. They can afford to hire help in raising their 2-year-old. But the Rios case, she said, reveals "a very insidious attitude about poor people and about disabled people as parents."
The California Supreme Court has ruled, Kaplan said, that a simple physical disability cannot be used to deprive a parent of his or her child, at least in contested custody cases. Barnett said he thinks that public outrage will prevent the county from taking Antonio David away permanently, if his parents do everything in their power to win him back.
But the pressures of the case have added to the already aggravating daily lives of Tony and Tiffany Rios, with results that may threaten their ability to get their son back. The county, the couple said, has a report of verbal abuse, and some physical abuse, by Tony Rios against Tiffany Rios.
"It's been caused by the kind of stress and limitations that they have placed on us," she said.
"There's a lot of pressure," he said.
After Antonio David was taken away, the couple separated briefly. Tiffany Rios said a social worker told her, "If you go back to him, you'll never get your son back." But she did, and they seem happy and often playful in their marriage, despite the strain of the legal and administrative struggle.
Kaplan said the Rioses and other such couples might benefit from more information on coping as disabled parents. Kaplan's son almost always wears overalls, so her husband can easily grab him by the straps and pull him up onto his lap. Barnett said the county has written to offer the Rioses training and evaluation by an expert on disabilities.
For now, they are looking for small victories. "If we could have him just for the Christmas holidays, if they would let him stay a week," Tony Rios said, "to see the tree and have him tear up the presents, that would be great."