Parents With Disabilities in the Child Welfare System
This research investigates the relationship between disability characteristics and involvement with Child Protective Services (CPS) among a sample of parents who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) due to physical, mental health or learning disabilities. While recent research indicates that parents with disabilities are over-represented in the child welfare system, the processes through which parents with disabilities come to the attention of CPS are not known. This research begins to fill that gap by exploring the circumstances that triggered CPS contact among a sample of parents with disabilities and the parents’ experience of the process.
A survey was verbally administered to 127 SSI-receiving parents of minor children. Parents were asked if they had ever been contacted by CPS. Parents that responded positively to that question were then asked a series of open-ended questions about the circumstances that triggered the contact and their health status at the time, case outcomes and any services or resources that families gained as a result of the contact. From these narratives, core themes were identified.
Of the 127 SSI-receiving parents involved in this study, 37 (29 percent) reported past involvement with CPS. Most contacts resulted from allegations of neglect made by neighbors or school personnel. Parents uniformly felt that this contact represented an invasion of privacy and that they were treated with little respect by the child welfare workers. Parents consciously concealed their disabilities. They worried that revealing their health problems would bias the child welfare workers against them and increase the risk that they would lose custody of their children. As a result, parents’ felt that their health status did not enter into the conversation about their families’ need s and well-being. No parents reported being asked about their physical or mental health or receipt of SSI income by child welfare workers.
Implications for practice
These findings indicate a training need to increase awareness of and sensitivity to parental disability among child welfare workers. This training module must incorporate several key components including the complexity of disability, the relationship of disability to material hardship and resources available to support parents with disabilities.
First, disability is dynamic, and, like childrearing and household responsibilities, is fluid and changing over time. Disability involves mental, physical and social components. Environmental, cultural and communication barriers may shape the well-being of parents with disabilities as much as their biological conditions. Secondly, disability may limit income both by constraining work and by increasing expenses for things such as assistive technology. Disability may also result in social isolation due to mobility limitations or problems regulating emotions. Recognizing these circumstances will offer child welfare workers’ a better understanding of the potential needs of parents with disabilities.
Finally, child welfare workers need to be well-informed of the resources available through federal, state and local programs to effectively help families. Knowledge of these resources will allow child welfare workers’ to connect parents to the services they need to minimize the effects of their disabilities and strengthen their families’ well-being.