Parental Disability in Child Welfare Systems and Dependency Courts: Preliminary Research on the Prevalence of the Population

By Callow, Ella; Jacob, Jean | Child Welfare, November 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Parental Disability in Child Welfare Systems and Dependency Courts: Preliminary Research on the Prevalence of the Population


Callow, Ella, Jacob, Jean, Child Welfare


Acknowledgements: This research was supported by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, Department of Health and Human Services grant number #H133A110009 (2012-2016).

In the United States, parents with disabilities comprise 6.2% of the general parent population (Kaye, 2011). Beginning with congressional testimony in support of passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), disability and legal researchers have increasingly documented that this population has negative and disproportionate levels of involvement with child welfare systems and dependency courts (Laliberte et al., 2006; Waslow, 2006; Lawless, 2008; Gwillim, 2009; Callow et al., 2011; NCD, 2012). In 2011, The National Center for Parents with Disabilities and their Families undertook a study to examine the prevalence of parents with disabilities within the child welfare parent population. A study of this type had not been conducted since Taylor and colleagues (1991) examined the prevalence of parents with disabilities within the Boston child welfare system the year after the ADA was passed. What we found was a family population that was diverse in disability and need, race/ethnicity, challenges, and the ability to overcome these challenges.

These findings are particularly significant at this moment in U.S. child welfare policy. Over the course of four years-beginning with the publication of the National Council on Disability's 2012 federal report Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and their Families (NCD, 2012), focused on parents with disabilities and their family rights under U.S. law, and concluding most recently with the May 2016 White House Forum on the Civil Rights of Parents with Disabilities (White House, 2016)-the federal Departments of Justice and of Health and Human Services have clearly stated their policy position on this topic. That policy position is that the Americans with Disabilities Act and its precursor Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,1 both of which prohibit discrimination and mandate accommodation for persons with disabilities, apply to the activities and structures of child welfare systems and dependency courts. Moreover, they have affirmed that these entities must fully comply with the law in order for families led by parents with disabilities to have a fair and adequate chance of retaining their children during child welfare/dependency court proceedings. This means that families that include parents with disabilities must be provided with accommodations and individualized, adapted services and programs.2

This could greatly improve outcomes in these systems for families that include parents with disabilities. According to the National Council on Disability, "[p]arents with disabilities who are involved in child welfare and dependency court proceedings regularly encounter a national dearth of resources to provide adapted services and adaptive parenting equipment, and to teach adapted parenting techniques . . . Adaptations and adapted services are integral to the lives of parents with diverse disabilities and to appropriate assessment and appropriate intervention." (NCD, 2012).

The natural corollary of the policy has been a call for formal, mandated screening for parental disability within these systems. Currently there is none, and implementation of the policy, and provision of accommodations and adapted, individualized services cannot occur if the parents and children who have a right to them are not identified, or not identified early enough. In 2016 powerful disability advocacy have focused in on developing a uniform screening system to capture parental disability in these systems as the next logical step (White House, 2016).

The results discussed below, in providing some tentative numbers that correlate with other research showing overrepresentation, give a singular glimpse into what such screenings might reveal. …

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