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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Should parents with disabilities be allowed to keep their kids

A ruling in the US state of Massachusetts has raised the debate on whether parents with disabilities should be allowed to keep their children. Today Parent writes about a mother who won a 2 year battle to have custody of her baby who was apprehended by child protection soon after birth. This is an important decision when considered as part of the larger discussion about how people with disabilities are treated in our society.

This mother has what is called, "mild intellectual disability." Such a person would have a number of functional strengths along with some deficits. Yet, as the article notes, the odds are heavily stacked against persons with disabilities:

An estimated 4.1 million parents have disabilities in the United States — roughly 6.2 percent of all parents with children under 18, according to the National Council on Disability. Removal rates for children whose parents have an intellectual disability can be 40 to 80 percent, the council estimates.

I am of the view that disabilities require their own form of assessment for parental capacity. Key issues that must be addressed include:

  • Does the parent have the ability to see the child for who he/she is?
  • Does the parent also recognize that the child has needs that will change with age?
  • Can the parent identify current needs and respond?
  • If there are limits to the above, what supports are in place or could be put in place that would help with the deficits?  In this case, the parents of the mother made home and support available? 
  • How, in fact, does the parent manage day to day requirements for self and the child?

There are, no doubt, other questions. There is a need for an environmental scan that will put the mother and child into a context where supports can be seen. Gaps would also be seen that could then be explored for supports.

This mother's mild intellectual disability is also part of the discussion. Disability exists on a continuum from quite mild to quite severe. Disability is not a one size fits all issue. Intellectual disabilities are getting better attention when child protection issues are considered. One disability that needs better attention is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Despite the word spectrum, it is often thought of as one disorder that comes in one form - disastrous. But it too has a spectrum.

Too much of the FASD and other disability literature has been written about the more profound forms of disorders. Let us begin to assess each parent for what they might be able to do and how that can work well enough for the child with the right supports in place.

Certainly not every parent is going to be able to do it - but many can and should be allowed.

To borrow a social work concept, let's consider the parent ecologically - individual strengths, immediate supports, external supports (such as parent coaching) and systemic supports such as health nurses and financial supports. Very few of us manage on our own.

The other aspect of the Massachusetts case is the role of kinship care. This has become almost a mantra in child protection to find kinship supports. So let's start there when working with persons with disability. Many have been using kinship, other informal and formal supports for most of their lives. Why would we not allow that as part of entering parenting as opposed to thinking that such a parent is going to go it alone.


  1. Child Protection can be considered a volatile classroom within a learning institution.

    Within an operational model, crisis (death, injury or exposed abuse) leads to investigation, assessment, recommendations and a review of policy and protocol, which ultimately results in an operational shift. Depending on the situations investigated – a parent is allowed to continue parenting despite risk factors, resulting in injury, trauma or death; a permanent ward is unwittingly placed in an unsafe or unhealthy pseudo-home, resulting in injury, trauma or death – the pendulum continues to swing, fueled by media and public response. Policy revisions, protocol implementations, practice strategies, paradigm shifts occur and all lean towards either keeping children out of care or placing them in care with loftier expectations for the parents.

    As with any other factors that impact parenting capacity (methamphetamine addiction versus recreational marijuana use, seasonal affective disorder versus severe psychosis, family of origin issues versus brain-trauma-induced impulsivity), “mild intellectual disability” is a label used to identify mental capacity. Each individual case needs to be assessed as to how the evident factors negatively impact parenting and child development and what supports are in place to counter the effects.


  2. Kerry - thank you for your comment. Your point about each case requiring its own assessment is so vital