Parents with a Disability

Parents with a Disability

There are stories waiting to be told, stories of disempowerment, prejudice, preconceived ideas, ableism and judgement. Stories centring around parents who have a disability.

Australia has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention[1] that acknowledges there has been serious discrimination against people with disabilities, but then in practice, allows that discrimination against them to continue.

As an advocate for parents with disabilities who are engaging with Child Protection, DFFH[2], I have become convinced there must be a better way to support these families. The current DFFH and Children’s Court approach is not breaking the generational cycle within families where children are in Out-of-Home care.  Workers and magistrates are tied to strict guidelines and practices which do not favour flexibility when working with families with divergent needs.

It is not questioned that any child that is at risk needs to be protected by the Child Protection system; what requires greater scrutiny is cases where the parent has a disability and that alone is seen as a defining risk factor. In the current system this is particularly evident where a parent has an intellectual disability. There are frequently compounding factors which are considered a risk in removal of a child, some of which such as housing stability, food security and social networks relate to the financial and social disadvantage experienced by people with an intellectual disability.

What are some of the issues?

  1. ‘Expert Opinion’

An over-reliance on ‘expert opinion’ to give legitimacy to the widespread, prejudicial and empirically invalid assumption that parents labelled with intellectual disability do not have the capacity to raise children[3]. Standardized assessments of parental intelligence IQ are used to equate to parental capacity.

  • Existing Children in Out-of-Home care.

If a parent has children in Out-of-Home care and/or experiences social disadvantage this is seen as validating the removal of subsequent children, even when circumstances change.

What sort of circumstance changes may have occurred for parents?

  • A network of support through access to NDIS[4] funding. This can provide assistance with household routines and taking care of children.
    • Stable Housing. This is such an important factor-and one to which governments need to give greater attention.
    • Change in a parent’s relationship eg separation from a violent partner.
    • Parents up-skilling through counselling or parenting courses which may be court directed or accessed individually.
    • Financial stability through employment.
    • Demonstrated abstinence from drugs and alcohol
  • Magistrates and Legal Representation
    • The Magistrate hearing the case may have very limited time to familiarise themselves with the case
    • The Magistrate may be of the opinion that DFFH have all relevant facts at their disposal.
    • Legal Aid lawyers may only meet a family on the day of a hearing.
    • Legal Aid are not compelled to provide representation for a parent, even in a contested hearing, resulting in a parent not being represented in Court.
    • Very few parents with disability can afford private legal representation.
  • Court Documents

There is little provision for Court Documents to be provided in an accessible format. Some DFFH regions are very supportive, and the allocated worker takes time to go over these important documents. Other regions provide no support. In one case, a parent was emailed a 160 page document a few days before court. It was impossible to read on a phone particularly as the parent had literacy challenges.

  • Available Support Services

Parents with an intellectual disability are often directed to mainstream services which may not have the capacity to tailor services or provide long term services. ‘Governments should develop and ⁄ or enforce service standards that require mainstream services to include parents labelled with intellectual disability and to accommodate their special needs’.[5]

  • Unborn Reports

It is almost impossible to imagine the fear, anxiety and uncertainty created for an expectant mother when an ‘unborn report’ is made. This occurs to flag the intention of DFFH to closely monitor the preparation, birth and post birth situation. For a parent with an intellectual disability these factors are exacerbated, as the one factor over which they have no agency is their disability.

The prospect of their child being removed soon after birth from the hospital, immediately creates enormous stress at a time when the mother should be bonding with her child and enjoying the early days of parenting.

Although removal of a child is followed up by court hearing within a prescribed period it is the magistrate’s decision as to whether the mother is reunited with her child. This decision may be deferred while more information or assessments are carried out.

In this process no ‘wrap around’ care is provided for the grieving parent.

There needs to be the facility for one team to work with the parent from the time of the initial unborn report, to arrange pre-birth for parenting assessments to be carried out immediately when the child is born, in a non-clinical environment. Currently a baby may be in Out-of-Home care for months until all the relevant assessments are made. Magistrates may then consider that the time of separation warrants on-going placement with an Out-of-Home carer.

Breast feeding is not adequately facilitated by the DFFH or associated agencies, especially in regard to weekends and Public Holidays.

  • Access to a child
    • The time allocated, location and level of supervision of access is determined by the magistrate advised by DFFH. This may be daily, several times a week or weekly. It can be in an approved location such as a private home or a public park or at the DFFH regional office.
    •   Supervised access at the DFFH office is highly structured. The supervising worker is required to record the parent’s management of the child, their interactions and conversations.

For a parent with an intellectual disability this process can be quite daunting making the contact experience with their child less than optimal.

As a Christian community we need to be aware of these issues and to work towards a compassionate approach for this vulnerable group of parents. One important contribution can be through individual and systemic Advocacy. If you would like more information please contact the church office who can put you in touch with an Advocacy organisation.


[1] Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Article 23 – Respect for home and the family

1a) The right of all persons with disabilities who are of marriageable age to marry and to found a family on the basis of free and full consent of the intending spouses is recognized;

4 In no case shall a child be separated from parents on the basis of a disability of either the child or one or both of the parents.

[2] Department of Families Fairness and Housing

[3] IASSID Special Interest Research Group on Parents and Parenting with Intellectual Disabilities 2008

[4] National Disability Insurance Scheme

[5] IASSID Special Interest Research Group on Parents and Parenting with Intellectual Disabilities 2008