The 3rd December wass the International Day of People with Disability. As a lead up to this day, at our combined service on Sunday 10 November, Rev Deacon Andy Calder spoke of people with difficulties and differences in our community and in the Uniting Church. He referred to defining stereotypes people hold about disability and importantly pointed out the overtones of terms such as ‘inclusion’ as presupposing a group which is ‘in’ and a group which is ‘out’. He emphasised that ‘all are included by God’- it is our actions and structures that exclude.
The 2019-2022 Disability Action Plan (victas.uca.org.au) has just been developed and released. It is affirmed that: ‘Christ is most fully present when all people in the Body are unconditionally accepted as people of worth. All people are created in the image of God, including people with disability’
Census figures indicate in Australia, almost one in five people, that is around 4.3 million, have a disability. Of these, one in three has severe or profound core activity limitation Over 700,000 Australians live with an intellectual disability; a term used to describe a reduced ability to understand new or complex information and to learn and apply new skills.
Particularly, in the area of intellectual disability, defining stereotypes are prevalent. Andy made the point that the lived experiences of people with an intellectual disability are frequently not recorded. It is important to outline some of the issues around intellectual ability and parenting and suggest a response of the church.
Rebuilding the Village and Child Protection
Within advocacy groups there is a growing concern for parents who have an intellectual disability and their interaction with Child Protection Services. Parents are often considered unable to parent before any assessment or training is carried out. In fact, current practices have been referred to as creating ‘a new stolen generation’
As far back as 2015, Victoria’s Public Advocate, Colleen Pearce, called for reform to the State’s child protection system for parents with disabilities. Ms Pearce was speaking at the launch of a major research report calling for system change to ensure the human rights of both parents with disabilities and their children to live in loving biological families.
“The state’s child protection system is removing children from parents with disabilities, especially cognitive disabilities or mental illnesses, at a much higher rate than parents without disabilities, as disability is assumed to be a risk to children,” Ms Pearce said.
“It is as if a box has been ticked on a form and so the parent comes under intense negative scrutiny, rather than receiving the support and encouragement they may need to successfully parent their children,” Ms Pearce said. “There is no credible evidence to support this assumption”.
Ms Pearce said that she did not support any child being exposed to neglect or abuse, whether their parents had disabilities or not, but that it was a case of justice for parents with disabilities to have the support of ‘the village’ and the rights of children to live in loving, biological families, where possible.
Since the publication of this report there has been action by Child Protection to ensure there are information guidelines for all parents in the court system. The difficulty with these comprehensive documents and all court communication is that they are not in an accessible format for a parent who may have difficulty reading. Further, the few positive parenting courses provided are unsuited to a person who has literacy difficulties and who may benefit from an individualised style of learning.in preparing for the birth of a child and for regular support in facing the challenges of caring for a new baby. Often the false assumption is made that people with an intellectual disability cannot be taught or retain information.
It is of concern that Child Protection cases are dealt within a setting associated with neglect and abuse where there may have been no neglect or abuse by the parent with an intellectual disability. The current system is very much re-active rather than pro-active.
Disempowering Parents: A parent’s experience
The family court is not there to prove capacity rather its role is to assess risk. As Child Protection workers have unacceptably high caseloads Court hearings are delayed and deferred, often for many months, during which a child and parent remain separated.
One parent has been waiting 15 months for the court to make a ruling and has faced many court deferments of her case, due to ‘reports’ from ’experts’ being delayed. At no stage has she been given court information in an accessible format or been told why her baby was removed while she was in the hospital. She has contact with her child only a few times a week. No training, support or help is extended to her through the court. She is expected to turn up when the court decides and cannot speak in the court to show her competency or in fact her pain. I cannot help asking myself how this situation is possible, especially in an era when research shows the importance of a child/parent bonding in the first years of life. Her little one is being set up for future relationship failure by the system.
It would be a far better option for a program, based on overseas models, to support parents in individually identified areas of need in order to provide positive parenting practices and thus decrease the risk of neglect. The implementation of the NDIS means such help can be personalised, but without a child living in the home this isn’t an option.
Further, there is need for increased training and resources for child protection officers working with families where a parent has an intellectual disability.
U.N. Article 23 Paragraph 4 states’ Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child. In no case shall a child be separated from a parent on the basis of a disability of either the child or one or both of the parents.’ This has been signed and ratified in Australia but not legislated.
You may be aware that currently there is a Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. Removal of children from parents with disabilities is one issue being raised in this context.
The response of the Church
What is our responsibility as a church to provide a voice for these people who are marginalised and may not be readily able to speak up for themselves?
We can urge the Government to legislate the UN Declaration.
We can examine our own prejudices around parenting by people with an intellectual disability
We can become better informed as a church community about the barriers these parents face and about the huge impact on child and parent alike of the removal, or threat of removal, of a child.
We can invite parents who have lost their children to the system to speak to our members so we can better understand the issues being faced.
We can advocate for change to the court system
The Uniting Church action plan states ’The Biblical tradition provides us with a clear mandate for addressing issues of injustice and inequality, based on the fundamental claim that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God….Christians are called to critique and resist those cultures and attitudes that perpetuate discrimination.’ We can be true followers of Jesus by reaching out to parents with a disability, a marginalised, disadvantaged group in our community.
We cannot allow current practices to continue.