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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Depressed parents and the child welfare system - a case of presumptive bias?

There is a large body of research that says that depression negatively impacts the ability of a parent. This includes lack of emotional availability to children; physical and emotional neglect as well as some connection to child abuse. This research has created a presumptive bias that a depressed parent is likely to be a risk to a child. Child protection workers can then lean towards more intrusive interventions. The bias gets greater with other forms of mental illness such as psychosis, bipolar disorder or the more severe forms of anxiety.

It is with that background in mind that I came across a recent Australian qualitative study that looked at the capacity of parents with mental illness. Boursnell (2012) sought to understand how parents with mental illness manage it and the parenting role. She reviewed the literature which identifies that mental illness is often seen as a risk factor in child protection matters. She further acknowledges that, when it can be shown that the illness does indeed prevent a parent from meeting minimum standards, then interventions are needed that may lead to the removal of children from the family.

There is also research that suggests that children raised in families with a mentally ill parent are at greater risk for problems with school, social relationships, links to the community as well as higher risks for substance abuse problems.

However, Boursnell also notes that much of the literature considers parents with quite severe mental illness including those who have been hospitalized. What then, she explores, about the many who are managed within the community utilizing voluntary services?

In those populations, the development of a solid working relationship between a social worker and the parent can allow a more strengths based approach in which the actual capacity of the parent might be considered. This might move the worker beyond the presumptive bias. There are many parents who might be able to successfully sustain the role of parent with appropriate community supports.

Many social workers are under pressure with high caseloads making it hard to build those relationships. This makes a risk oriented view of a parent with mental illness more probable. It also acts as a deterrent for parents getting involved in support programs.

While the article does not tell us that parents with major mental illness are not a concern, it does tell us that there is a need to be cautious about presuming mentally ill parents cannot parent.


Boursnell, M. (2012). Assessing the capacity of parents with mental illness: Parents with mental illness and risk. International Social Work, In press.  http//

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