Child protection

What we know:

Australian and international research shows parents with intellectual disability to be subject to unusually high rates of state intervention in the care of their children. Moreover, a significant number of their children are made state wards and placed in out-of- home foster or residential care. That this is the case is not merely indicative of inevitable parenting incompetence. A range of often overlooked political, social and institutional factors make the task of parenting for those with intellectual disability more difficult. Further, there is widespread evidence that shows these parents to be disadvantaged and discriminated against in child protection proceedings.

Practitioners need to be acutely aware of the nature of these factors and the impact they have on both an individual's ability to parent and on care proceeding outcomes. These factors are:

  • The widely held but unfounded presumptions that intellectual disability equates with parenting incompetence, that parenting deficiencies are irremediable, and that children of people with intellectual disability will inevitably be harmed;
  • False attribution, that is, parents' difficulties being attributed to their disability, when in fact they derive more from poverty, poor housing, social isolation, harassment and the lack of appropriate support services;
  • The shift from a culture of social to individual responsibility for children. For parents with intellectual disability this has meant a lack of support services, coupled with a keener mandate of the state to protect those most vulnerable in society (by implication, children of parents with intellectual disability);
  • Within the courts, parenting competence being assessed only as a function of innate ability. The diagnostic-prognostic rationality of decision makers is at cross roads with the strong empirical evidence that intellectual disability per se is not an adequate predictor of parenting capacity or an insurmountable barrier to learning. Further, IQ has been shown to be a poor indicator of parenting capacity; and
  • Disadvantages inherent in the adversarial process eg., constraints on child protection workers who lack the time, training and resources to adequately support parents with intellectual disability; the need for parent compliance; the current practice of risk assessments being made without any theoretical and empirical basis; difficulties experienced by people with intellectual disability in adhering to imposed rehabilitation plans; legal representatives usually being court appointed, having limited time and with limited understanding of disability issues; court proceedings not being explained in an accessible manner; the court environment on the whole alienating and disempowering parents with a disability.

What we can do:

  • Give parents with intellectual disability access to parenting skills training specifically tailored to cater for this client group. Contrary to popular thinking, research clearly states that parents with intellectual disability are capable of learning new skills and unlearning negative patterns of behaviour if these exist
  • Advocate for more appropriate proactive services to support and assist parents
  • Evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of alternative initiatives to court intervention eg., family group conferencing and alternative dispute resolution
  • Develop and maintain web-based resources for parents with an intellectual disability and their children, including those with a support services directory and with plain English information on the court process and what parents' rights and responsibilities within it are
  • Lobby for adequate legal aid funding so as to allow parents with intellectual disability access to the best possible representation
  • Review the court environment and its procedures and processes so as to ensure appropriate accessibility by people with a disability as required under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) and the Anti-Discrimination Act 1997 (NSW)
  • Review the use of expert assessment practices that rely heavily on IQ tests
  • Develop guidelines which clearly specify the limitations of diagnostic-prognostic assessment, the need for functional assessment, and ways by which this functional assessment can occur
  • Ensure that those professionals involved in child protection proceedings - magistrates, child protection workers, psychologists/psychiatrists, and legal representatives - become familiar with current empirical research that clearly demonstrates that intellectual disability per se is not an adequate predictor of parenting competence or an insurmountable barrier to learning. That they also examine their own beliefs and assumptions is encouraged. To these ends, the development of a training module that addressed these issues would be invaluable
  • Actively promote the participation of parents with intellectual disability in all aspects of court proceedings eg., have an independent third party acting as a support person; develop interactive media, video and plain English resources that explain the court process and empower these parents
  • Challenge the negative and widespread presumptions about parents with intellectual disability at every opportunity
  • Repoliticise the social disadvantage that leads to children being removed from parents on the grounds of their parents' presumed incapacity.

Want to know more? Check out these publications:

Llewellyn, G., McConnell, D. & Ferronato, L. (2003) Prevalence and Outcomes for Parents with Disabilities and their Children in an Australian Court Sample Child Abuse & Neglect, 27, 235 - 251.

McConnell, D., Llewellyn, G., & Ferronato, L. (2002) Disability and Decision-Making in Australian Care Proceedings International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 16, 270 - 299.

McConnell, D. & Llewellyn, G. (2002) Stereotypes, Parents with Intellectual Disability and Child Protection Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law, 24 (3), 297 - 317.

McConnell, D. & Llewellyn, G. (2000) Disability and Discrimination in Statutory Child Protection Proceedings Disability & Society, 15 (6), pp. 883 - 895.

McConnell, D., Llewellyn, G., & Ferronato, L. (2000) Parents with a Disability and the NSW Children's Court. Report to the Law Foundation of NSW. University of Sydney.

McConnell, D. & Llewellyn, G. (1998) Parental Disability and the Threat of Child Removal Family Matters, 51 (Spring/Summer), 33 - 36.