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A parent’s disability: Risk and vulnerability factors

A parent’s disability does not preclude them from being able to parent, and many parents who have diagnosed disabilities successfully raise their children with no intervention or assistance from Child Safety. Parents are the experts of their children and their lives and are best placed to provide information to inform your risk assessment.

There are some factors that may increase the risk of harm to a child depending on the type or severity of a parent’s disability. In these circumstances, we need to respectfully engage with the parent to understand the impact that their disability has on their functioning, including their parental capacity.

Attention

An important part of your job in assessing risk, particularly with a parent with disability, is ensuring a fair and just process has occurred regarding your consideration of their communication and accessibility requirements. Adapt your approach to enable full participation of a parent and provide further opportunities to explore their strengths, resources and acts of protection, as well as the worries.

Psychiatric disability

The extent of a parent’s psychiatric disability and the impact this disability has on their functioning will influence the level of harm or risk of harm to their child. If a parent is not receiving appropriate support for their psychiatric disability such as medication or therapeutic interventions, their child may be at risk of harm due to:

  • A parent having disorganised or delusional thoughts, causing their child to live in a state of ongoing fear or hypervigilance resulting in emotional harm.
  • A parent harming themselves or other people, resulting in significant emotional distress or physical harm to their child.
  • A parent being out of touch with reality, resulting in their child being physically or emotionally harmed from failure to be fed, bathed, clothed or supervised adequately.

Intellectual disability

The extent of a parent’s intellectual disability and the impact this disability has on their functioning will influence the level of harm or risk of harm to their child.

Attention

“Learning disability is not correlated with the deliberate abuse of children” (Cleaver, Unell and Aldgate, 2011).

With appropriate support and education relevant to their needs and the needs of their child, many parents with intellectual disabilities safely and successfully parent their child. When considering risk associated with parents who have an intellectual disability, their child may be at risk of harm due to:

  • A parent not understanding the full extent of their child’s needs, for example, a mother may know that her newborn baby needs to be fed, but may not understand the frequency of feeding required resulting in malnourishment.
  • A parent not being able to meet their own care needs due to the severity of their impairment, thus being unable to meet the needs of a child who is reliant on them.
  • A parent being more susceptible to manipulation or coercion resulting in their child being harmed by another person.

Some research suggests parents with learning difficulties are less likely to provide guidance and boundaries for their children, are less likely to provide them with adequate stimulation, and may not readily recognise their baby’s cues or understand how to appropriately respond to their baby (Clever, Unell, Aldgate, 2011).

Parents who have an intellectual disability are at increased risk of social isolation, parental stress, have higher rates of past abuse or neglect, increased risk of economic hardship, and increased risk of physical and mental health problems (Lamont and Bromfield, 2009). For a parent with an intellectual disability, the interplay between these factors can sometimes be the source of the worry regarding the child rather than the parent’s disability itself, depending on the extent of these issues, existing protective factors to mitigate them and the parent’s disability.

Practice prompt

A parent’s intelligence is not a predictor of their parenting ability. The impact of a disability on a parent’s functioning will vary from individual to individual, thus each person, regardless of their disability, requires individual assessment.

Further reading

The resource Children’s Needs – Parenting Capacity. Child abuse: Parental mental illness, learning disability, substance misuse, and domestic violence explores how, in addition and in comparison to mental illness, substance misuse and domestic violence,  parental intellectual disabilities can impact on parenting capacity and how this impact affects children at different ages.

Physical Disability

The extent of a parent’s disability and the impact this disability has on their functioning will influence the level of harm or risk of harm to their child, however having a physical disability does not correlate with intentional harm to a child.

A parent’s physical disability may impact them to an extent that they are unable to complete all parenting tasks, however they may have assistance from a spouse or other safety and support network members to ensure the safety, belonging and wellbeing needs of their child are met.

The child of a parent with physical disability may be at risk of harm if their parent lacks access to appropriate supports to enable them to complete necessary parenting tasks that their disability prevents them from doing. This is particularly true for younger children who are completely reliant on their caregiver. For example:

  • A parent may be unable to intervene or stop their young child from hurting themselves if the child turns on hot water or a stove resulting in the child being physically injured. 
  • A parent may have issues with fatigue or seizures, resulting in their child being unsupervised.
  • A parent may be physically unable to wash their child or change their child’s nappies resulting in severe nappy rash or other physical health concerns.

The impact a parent’s physical disability has on their child can be mitigated with the presence of supports who can assist the parent and child to complete tasks. The impact is also mitigated for older children who do not require physical care from their parent or caregiver.

Practice prompt

In all of the above circumstances, does the parent have access to the NDIS?  Consider whether their NDIS plan is sufficient to support them to be able to parent their child, and whether a review of their current NDIS supports may be required.

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