Parental intellectual disability
Updated: 22 September 2013
What's Important To Us
Parental intellectual impairment is an important factor that social workers need to consider when assessing parenting ability and putting in place suitable parenting support to ensure children and young people are able to reach their full potential. Intellectually disabled parents may need specific supports to enable them to fulfill their parental role, and some of this support may require linking the disabled parents with family/whānau and/or disability organisations. This is complex work but when completed well, can have hugely beneficial outcomes for all parties.
This key information discusses the impact of parental disability on children and young people and the difficulty of both protecting children and supporting intellectually disabled parents. It also provides tips for social workers working with intellectually disabled parents and child protection factors to consider.
This key information needs to be read in the context of the New Zealand Disability Strategy which has a vision of New Zealand being a fully inclusive society. The Strategy states that New Zealand will be inclusive when people with impairments can say they live in "a society that highly values our lives and continually enhances our full participation".
Impact on children and young people
A literature review by the Donald Beasley Institute identified the following key conclusions about the impact of parental disability on children and young people:
- Children of intellectually disabled parents appear more likely to experience an intellectual or other developmental disability themselves.
- There are a range of factors that raise the degree of risk to children and young people e.g. sole parenting, both parents being intellectually disabled, parental disharmony, co-existence of mental health or drug and alcohol issues, physical health problems and a history of parental abuse or neglect of children.
- It is important to stress that the majority of children born to intellectually disabled parents are not disabled themselves. However, these children may have difficulties in social adjustment and problem behaviour, especially in adolescence.
- Intellectual disability and IQ should never be used as a sole measure of parenting capacity or a predictor of future competence.
- Research findings suggest that intellectually disabled mothers and their children may be particularly vulnerable to the environmental strains related to poverty and social deprivation. Poverty is correlated with many causes of disabilities in children and young people, even for parents without an intellectual impairment.
- There are three types of protective factors which increase children and young people's resilience to the developmental risks they face: the attributes of the child or young person, such as sociability and an internal locus of control; positive emotional ties within the family/whānau; and external support systems that reward parenting competence and provide support to the child or young person.
- Training and support to intellectually disabled parents have typically focused on basic child care skills, safety in the home skills, child behaviour management, mother-child interaction and play skills, problem solving, decision making in real life, communication and social skills.
- Many intellectually disabled parents do need special, individualised training and support to parent successfully. However, without the mainstreaming and adequate funding of comprehensive, long-term support services, intellectually disabled parents are more likely than others to come to the notice of child protection services (Mirfin-Vietch, 2003).
Protecting children and young people vs. supporting intellectually disabled parents
Collaboration between child protection and disability support agencies is difficult for a number of reasons:
- value clash between the 'best interests of the child' and the 'parental advocacy' approach of disability support agencies who are informed by the social model of disability
- the complexity of obtaining funding to support parents in both crisis and long term situations
- arguments about whether health or welfare should be funding a particular case
- the shortage of people who are sufficiently trained to provide long term, intensive and individualised support in the home.
A New Zealand study of parents with an intellectual disability within the Family Court system concluded that Judges face a difficult job in assessing the parenting abilities of intellectually disabled parents. The study highlighted the need for:
- careful and individualised assessments of parenting capacity and the parent/child relationship by psychologists who are experts in the disability field
- recognition of the vulnerability of this group of parents, especially in the legal system
- an awareness of the presumption that disability per se is often treated as a prima facie evidence of parental inadequacy
- the need for the judiciary to be educated about intellectual disability and the supports required to parent
- the use of support orders and services order (under the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989 ) to ensure better outcomes for intellectually disabled parents (Johnston, Henaghan & Mirfin-Veith, 2007).
This study underlines the difficulties in balancing the needs of children, young people and parents, a task that Oranga Tamariki social workers, as well as the Judiciary, face.
Tips for social workers working with intellectually disabled parents
- Disability support services are better able to provide support to intellectually disabled parents than Oranga Tamariki. Our work with the parents and their children will have a better chance of success if the parent has access to support and advocacy services from a disability support service. This helps balance the parent's 'felt sense' of powerlessness and the objective power imbalance between a vulnerable family/whānau and a statutory agency.
- Oranga Tamariki is better able to monitor a child or young person's safety and wellbeing than disability support services.
- It is the role of Oranga Tamariki, not disability support services, to assess the parenting capacity of an intellectually disabled parent where there are care and protection concerns, and to ensure that a plan is in place to safeguard the child. However, this is a specialised field, and social workers will need the expertise of experienced professionals in reaching their conclusions about parenting capacity (McGaw, Beckley, Connolly & Ball, 1999).
- IQ tests, despite their limitations, are used to allocate resources. If your local Needs Assessment and Service Coordination (NASC) agency is not prepared to accept existing psychological reports, social workers may need to get an IQ test for the parent by a psychologist with disability expertise in order to access a service through NASC.
- It is the role of Oranga Tamariki, when parental disability impacts on the care and protection needs of the child, to ensure a collaborative approach with the disability sector. Joint approaches are more likely to result in an accurate assessment of risks and support needs, as well as access to resources from the health sector. Collaboration with your local NASC agency and disability support services who may have a relationship with the family/whānau is essential.
- Where disabled parents lose custody of their children, they need planned and resourced on-going support to maintain contact with them. Parental vulnerability makes it somewhat inevitable that contact with their children will be lost unless this issue is explicitly addressed.
- Do not work alone. Co-working and reflective supervision are essential in this complex work.
- Educate yourself about the particular disability the parent is facing. Consult professionals in your area. Check with your Care and Protection Resource Panel about resources known to them.
- Use the practice frameworks and disability practice triggers to guide and support your work.
Assessing parenting capacity
Your Regional Office will have a copy of a Parent Assessment Manual (PAM) written by Dr Sue McGaw and others, which is a multi-media package designed specifically to help assess the parenting abilities of intellectually disabled parents. The Parent Assessment Manual provides a detailed framework for assessing the skills and knowledge of intellectually disabled parents and assists with the identification of what supports and training may be required. It is not a psychometric or validated assessment tool, and should not be used for Family Court matters. Extra copies of the manual may also be requested from the Care and Protection Support team in National Office.
The tuituia assessment framework provides a structure for gathering information and focuses, in part, on the parenting capacity or kaitiaki mokopuna of those people providing day-to-day care for children and young people.
In balancing the needs of parents and children, key questions still need to be asked concerning the 'interests’ of the child or young person. These include:
- What is the type and severity of the parental disability?
- What long-term supports are in place, if any, to protect a vulnerable infant?
- Is there family violence, discord, hostility and/or substance abuse associated with the parental disability to which the child or young person is exposed?
- Is there a parent who is emotionally accessible and responsive to the child or young person's needs?
- How much contact does the child or young person have with a non-disabled parent, siblings and extended family/whānau members, and what is the nature of attachments to those people?
- Has the child or young person been enabled to express their views on what they want for themselves, taking into account their age and level of maturity? If the child or young person has an intellectual disability, it should not be assumed they are not able to know and express what they want for themselves
- How socially isolated is the family/whānau? Does the child or young person have adults in their social milieu (e.g. family/whānau, teachers, neighbours, church members) who can provide support for the child or young person's sense of self-identity?
- How is the child or young person coping with their parent's disability, and what is their level of resilience? Is the child or young person displaying emotional, psychological or behavioural symptoms that cause concern and, if so, has there been a specialist assessment of the child or young person?
- How much awareness does the parent have about the impact of their disability on their child? Is the parent prepared to seek help when it is appropriate? Are there supports in place for the child or young person when the parent is unable to cope (e.g. short-term placement with an aunt, foster care)?
- What access does the parent have to NGO disability and advocacy services? Are these services readily available? How able is the parent to use these NGO services?
Mirfin-Veitch B. (2003). Relationships and Adults with an Intellectual Disability. Donald Beasley Institute.
Johnston,H., Henaghan,M., & Mirfin-Veith, B. (2007). The experiences of parents with an intellectual disability within the NZ Family Court system. NZ Family Law Journal, pp.226-236
McGaw, S., Beckley, K., Connolly, N. & Ball, K. (1999). Parenting Assessment Manual. Trecare NHS Trust.