How Can We Ensure The Rights of Parents With Disabilities?

What could be worse than to have your child taken away by someone who tells you that you, the parent, are not capable or raising her or him?

Just such a forced removal of a child happens at an “alarming rate” to parents with intellectual disabilities in Australia, the country’s ABC News reports. Human rights and disability rights advocates assert that such removals of children into state care are “wrong” and “inhumane” yet continue to occur due to “entrenched prejudice.”

As a parent (and of a son with disabilities), the thought of having my child taken from me on the grounds that I was unable to care for him is deeply disturbing. On the other hand, I know what’s involved in being a parent and how overwhelming it can be to realize that you are solely responsible for the total care, well-being and future of another human being.

Australia Removing Children From Parents With Intellectual Disabilities

Individuals with intellectual disabilities comprise only one percent of the general parenting population in Australia. But in New South Wales — which has the highest removal rate in the country — those with intellectual disabilities make up ten percent of the parents who are fighting in the courts to win back their own children.

The government of course contends that it is simply doing what is best for all parties. Says NSW Family Services Minister Pru Goward to ABC News:

“Every removal is the failure of our community to keep children safe in their own homes; sometimes you are going to have to do it.”

“In other words, some failures are inevitable, but every time we do it, it is of great distress to everybody.”

But surely it is the children and their parents who undergo the greatest distress and who pay, and suffer, when “failures” occur?

Two women with mild intellectual disabilities who were themselves wards of the state specifically told ABC News that they not want their children to go through what they did. They recount experiences revealing how, after having a child, they ended up very much at the mercy of government agencies. A woman identified as Lily says that her baby was taken from her hours after she gave birth by family services. The same agency took the child of another woman, identified as Clara, when she sought help from the agency.

Rights of Parents With Disabilities Are Often Overlooked

In the cases of these women, their own responses to the potential trauma of having a child removed from them by state agencies was not fully considered. Dr. Margaret Spencer from the Intellectual Disability Rights Service and others point out that parents with disabilities too often get the proverbial short end of the stick when children are removed. “I have no question that we have to act in the best interests of the child, but we also have to show compassion to the parents,”  Dr. Spencer says, in calling for standardized protocols in removing a child and for providing parents with grief and trauma counseling.

Disability rights advocates emphasize that it would be best to provide adequate support services so parents could care for their children in their homes. Complicating such a scenario is that a parent with a disability may very likely be themselves in need for support services to live independently. For him or her also to take care of a child, there would most likely need to be additional services, staff and supervision to make sure that everyone’s needs were best addressed.

Rights of Parents With Disabilities in the U.S.

In the U.S., 6.1 million children in the U.S. are estimated to have parents with disabilities, about 6.2 percent of all Americans with children under the age off 18. These parents are far more likely to be forcibly separated from their children, according to a National Council on Disability report, “Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children.” Of the parents with a disability, 2.8 percent reporting having a mobility disability; 2.3 percent, an intellectual or cognitive disability; 2.3 percent, a daily activity limitation; 1.4 percent, a hearing disability, and 1.2 percent, a vision disability.

For parents with intellectual disabilities in U.S., the child removal rate ranges from 40 to 80 percent. Those with intellectual are far more likely to lose a child after a divorce and to have more difficulty adopting children. Moreover, in two-thirds of U.S. states, the courts can “deem a parent unfit solely based on their disability.”

As the report makes clear, in the U.S., one of the reasons for these disproportionately high rates of child removal are because the child welfare system is itself “ill-equipped” to serve individuals with disabilities via services and supports that would enable a parent with a disability to keep their own child.  As a result, “parents with disabilities and their children are overly, and often inappropriately, referred to child welfare services and, once involved, are permanently separated at disproportionately high rates.” Parents with disabilities involved in custody disputes often face discriminatory practices from agencies, attorneys and others. Moreover, assessments to determine a parent’s fitness to keep their child are not adapted to accommodate individuals with disabilities.

Other challenges to parents with disabilities in the U.S. include difficulties finding “accessible, affordable, and appropriate housing for their families”; economic challenges due to having lower incomes and relying at least in part on public benefits; and “significant barriers to receiving proper reproductive health care,” especially for women.

That is, whether in Australia or the U.S., services and accommodations to support parents with disabilities to raise their own children are more likely than not lacking, in no small part because of discriminatory attitudes about persons with disabilities and their wish to take on parenting roles.

Parents With Disabilities Can Care For Their Children But Need Adequate Support

With that said, the report states that “despite limited funding and little national attention given to parents with disabilities and their families, a number of programs and support services have begun to emerge across the nation.” Some such places include Centers for Independent Living; the report underscores the need to replicate such services at a national level to “provide consistent capacity to support parents with disabilities and their children.”

As Clara in Australia said of the 18 months she fought to get her children back in ABC News, “They didn’t think that I was going to fight to the end, but that’s what I did. My children are… my life. I would be a wreck, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have my children.”


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Photo by Daquella Manera


nancy b.
Nancy B5 years ago


holly masih
.5 years ago

The standards should be the same for everyone across the board,disabled or not-the child should only be removed from the parents for deliberate abuse or neglect of the child.If that is not happening,leave the family alone.The govt interferes in people's personal affairs and family life way too much,and will continue to do so until we stop allowing it.

Lynn Squance
Lynn Squance5 years ago

To speak of intellectual disabilities is complicated because there are so many things to consider. The rights of the child, the rights of the parent(s), the desires of each, the abilities of the parent, the degree of disabiity, the services available to help the family in the area where they live.

To me, the first 3 are no brainers. But the abilities of the parent, and the degree of disability are the two areas that would concern me. And I say this having 1st hand experience with several family members with intellectual disabilities. My cousin was a hydrocephalic baby and given little chance of survival. But survive she did, and better than any expectations. Her decision making abilities were not always the best, but when it came to her child, there was no doubt that that child came first. What's more, she lived independently, but she had the support of her parents. She survived her disability but was struck down by breast cancer at age 41 when her daughter was 5 years old. That daughter is now 25 and remembers well her mother, and the love she gave her. I also think of others that are in group homes because of the challenges they face as adults dealing with their own disabilities. How do we, as a caring society, help these people deal with options available to them. To me, it cannot be a cookie cutter approach. It must be individually based and any actions taken, taken with respect and love for the child and the parent(s).

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy5 years ago

In this case .... parents and child or children should have is often difficult with the way people look at this type of situation anyway........

Christine Stewart
Christine S5 years ago

If you cannot take care of your kids- they at first should offer classes or other assistance to keep the kids with the parent they love, rather than breaking up the family. But if you still can't take care of your kid, then you should lose custody and get put on contraception! And I mean anyone- mentally disabled, drug addicted, or whatever- I wouldn't single out just intellectually disabled people. Loving your kid is more important than your IQ, at least up to a point...

Rin S.
Rin S5 years ago

Thank you, so sad to read.

Julie W.
Jules W5 years ago

Thanks for the post.

Susan Allen
SusanAWAY A5 years ago

As usual, I'm dismayed, amazed and disgusted. What happened to trying to keep families together? There are truly children in troubling and horrendous situations like the one I heard about the other day where a mother was keeping her 3 adopted children locked up in a room without sufficient food and clothing. Child welfare will step in and take a child out of a loving family situation, but will probably fall all over themselves to reunite this abusive mother with her adopted children at some point after she gets out of prison. What's wrong with the world these days anyway?

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L5 years ago

It's another one of many laws or court orders that make absolutely no sense and does more damage to all concern then good. Taking a child away from a parent under these conditions is just plain stupi from an economic and moral standpoint. We the people are going to have to provide the disable parent, in many cases, home care and probably assistance in the form of SS disability and we will have to take care of the child's support also, so why not let them stay together (the moral standpoint) in a loving environment; indeed, this way we only have to provide one home, a little bit more on the already SS disability check and one home care cost instead of two.

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks Kristina for the article and your perspective on this.