People with intellectual disability are over-represented in child protection systems, both as parents and as children or young people being placed in out-of-home care (Jackson, O’Connor & Chenoweth, 2006; Lamont & Bromfield, 2010).

Parents with intellectual disability

 Parental intellectual disability is a statistically-demonstrated risk factor for child protection system involvement. However, the presence of risk does not mean that parents will abuse or neglect their children, or that parental intellectual disability necessarily means reduced parenting capacity (Lamont & Bromfield, 2010).

There are strong negative connotations associated with using the word ‘risk’ to identify areas where parents with intellectual disability might need extra support. Discrimination against parents with intellectual disability and the lack of support they receive to reduce the risk of harm to their children contribute significantly to the over-representation of parents with intellectual disability in the child protection system (Lamont & Bromfield, 2010). This situation is further complicated by the lack of clear definitions of ‘good parenting’ (or the impossibility of defining this) and the difficulties in assessing parenting capacity of people with intellectual disability. Difficulty in assessing parenting capacity is due to communication barriers, lack of training and awareness of assessors, the dominance of negative value judgements about the ability of people with intellectual disability to be good parents, or the belief that a person’s disability is the singular cause of parenting difficulties. Some parents with intellectual disability do abuse their children, but there is no conclusive research to suggest that this risk is higher than in other parent groups (Healthy Start, 2011; Lamont & Bromfield, 2010).

Lamont and Bromfield (2010) report that some of the difficulties experienced by parents with intellectual disability include:

  • Difficulty with problem solving 
  • Difficulty understanding human relationships 
  • Difficulty engaging positively with children
  • Multigenerational involvement with child protection systems (their parents’ involvement as well as their own) 
  • Lack of knowledge about health care and safety 
  • Vulnerability to other perpetrators abusing them or their children (commonly committed by the parent’s partner) 
  • Social isolation and lack of support to parent well 
  • Difficulty in developing support networks 
  • Financial stress 
  • Stigmatisation and history of failure 
  • High levels of maternal stress which impact on bonding and attachment and contribute to more hostile parenting 
  • Past histories of abuse (a UK study cited by Lamont and Bromfield found that 79.6 percent of parents with intellectual disability were abused or neglected as children) 
  • Lack of ongoing support after the child has been removed. 

While the presenting challenges for parents with intellectual disability are considerable, assessment of individual parenting ability needs to be done on a case-by-case basis, and in a way that accounts for the protective factors and strengths the parent brings, as well as the risks.

Professionals assessing parenting ability of people with intellectual disability need to engage in a high level of critical reflection about their own values and beliefs, to ensure that their assumptions about the competency of parents with intellectual disability do not cloud an accurate assessment of individual parenting. It is worth noting that, in the available research, parents with intellectual disability do not experience high rates of substance use and domestic violence, which are the two most common risk factors for child abuse and neglect (Lamont & Bromfield, 2010).

Further reading about this topic and resources for parents and practitioners are available from Healthy Start (http://www.healthystart.net.au/).

Young people with intellectual disability in (and transitioning out of) care

 All young people exiting the state care system are at significant risk of experiencing a range of difficult challenges – some that are usual for their stage of life, some that are related to their experiences in care, and some that are due to a highly-accelerated transition into adult independence from their 18th birthday (Cashmore & Paxman, 2006). Young people with intellectual disability face even greater risks, due to the lack of recognition of their needs and the lack of specialist support at this crucial time (Jackson, O’Connor & Chenoweth, 2006).

A 2006 study by Jackson, O’Connor and Chenoweth (2006) into the experiences of young people with intellectual disability who had exited out-of-home care at 18 reported that:

  • Almost half of the interviewed were female and parenting a child (the average age of mothers was 20.8)
    There was a 96 percent child protection intervention rate among the parenting group; only one of the families had no form of protective intervention 
  • While in care, 26 percent of participants had experienced more than five placements, with some participants reporting 22, over 40 or over 50 placements 
  • Only one participant was in the same accommodation 2.5 years after exiting care; all other participants had experienced several types of accommodation including boarding houses, homeless shelters, public housing, private rental and foster carers 
  • Over half of the participants had experienced homelessness 
  • 17 percent of participants had been charged with a criminal offence, and 10 percent with more than one offence 
  • 71 percent of participants reported being victims of crime, and 67 percent of these crimes were sexual assault or rape 
  • 60 percent of participants had accessed mental health services, and 44 percent reported substance abuse issues. 

I was homeless for a while [after leaving foster care]. I was with this guy Sam. And then I split away from him, stayed in some flats at Kallangur, then somehow Sam and I found each other [again]. He moved into one of the flats. Then we were on the streets for 3 months, getting chased by the police, seeing the Salvos, trying to find a comfy place to stay … I got sick. (Jackson, O’Connor & Chenoweth, 2006)

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