Abstract: Under the Radar? Identifying Parents with Intellectual Disability in Child Welfare (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Under the Radar? Identifying Parents with Intellectual Disability in Child Welfare

Friday, January 14, 2022
Supreme Court, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Wendy Zeitlin, PhD, Assistant Professor, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
Astraea Augsberger, PhD, Assistant Professor, Boston University, MA
Noor Toraif, MA, Doctoral Student, Boston University, MA
Kira Chontow, MSW student, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
Background and Purpose: It is estimated that parents with intellectual disabilities (ID) are over-represented in child welfare systems in the US (DeZelar & Lightfoot, 2018; McConnell et al., 2020; Powell & Albert, 2020); however, it is unclear how consistently parental ID status is reported in documented allegations of child maltreatment. If disability is not accurately reported, it is possible that child welfare organizations may not detect families’ needs or provide appropriate services to keep children safe.

The current study examines the degree to which parental ID status is reported on a case-by-case and state-by-state basis when allegations of child maltreatment are made to State Central Registries. The purpose of this descriptive study is to determine with some certainty whether parental ID status is accurately reported and consider the implications if it appears to be problematic.

Methods: In this study we looked at parent ID status for 2,773,483 unduplicated cases in the 2018 National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) Child File by state and nationally. We also used supporting documentation, state mapping plans, to identify whether states had the capability to report parental ID status. We computed frequencies and percentages by state/territory and nationally to determine how often parental ID status was reported as either yes, no, or unknown/missing and how much data was completely missing. For those states reporting completely missing data, we reviewed the mapping plans to determine whether each state reported being capable of providing this information and reviewing when the mapping plan was last updated.

Results: States varied widely in how consistently parental ID status was reported. For example, the District of Columbia reported that in 18.74% of cases, a parent was diagnosed with ID, while Alabama reported no parents with ID. Thirteen states had completely missing data, with eight of these reporting being unable to provide this information based upon their own information systems. The largest category of parental ID status mentioned for states that provided at least some information was unknown/missing (n=1,478,384; 53.30% of all cases). The national average of cases in which a parent was confirmed to have ID was 0.43% of all cases (n=11,829); there were 901,906 cases (32.52% of all cases) in which a parent did not have ID.

Conclusions and Implications: This analysis provides a strong indication that parental ID status is not routinely reported to state child welfare systems and is likely under-reported based upon estimates provided by other countries. Identification of parents with ID in child welfare cases is relatively rare. This is particularly troubling as parents with ID often require specialized interventions to keep their children safe at home (Augsberger & Zeitlin, 2021). Based on this analysis, it is reasonable to assume that there are a substantial number of parents with ID who fly “under the radar.” Not addressing the needs of these families may result in unnecessary potentially adverse outcomes such as out-of-home care and termination of parental rights. Additional implications for child welfare practice, policy, and research will be discussed.