Parenting, in general, is a challenge. It is full of highs and lows, and parents have many questions about whether they are doing what is absolutely best for their children. Parents with intellectual disabilities not only have to face the challenges that inherently come with parenting, but they face the added threats of stigmatization, poverty, and disproportionate interference from child protective services (MacIntyre et al., 2019; Slayter & Jensen, 2019). Given this stigmatization, the children of parents with IDD are more likely to be taken from their parents and placed into the foster care system (Sigurjonsdottir & Rice, 2018). The perception of parents with intellectual disabilities as incompetent, vulnerable, and generally unfit to parent create difficulties for these parents to gain help when they need it.
The general belief in our society is that children with an intellectually disabled parent must be separated from this parent in order to avoid abuse and/or neglect. Removing a child from their home and placing them into foster care can be traumatizing and developmentally harmful. Unfortunately, despite knowing the dangers and damaging implications, our social systems are often more eager to separate children from their intellectually disabled parents than provide proper support and guidance. Why? Yes, funding might be part of the issue, but these support systems have an obligation to protect the children and their parents. The reason is that services fail to recognize that parents with intellectual disabilities are just as capable of receiving help and parenting as any non-disabled parent.
An intellectual disability does not negate one’s ability to parent successfully. Research has found that a vast array of factors contribute to effective parenting, none of which include the presence/absence of an intellectual disability. Factors that contribute to successful parenting include being married, having adequate support, having few children, parental motivation and willingness to accept support, strong physical and mental health, low stress, financial stability, and more (The Arc, 2011). While having an intellectual disability makes one more likely to face difficulty in many of these domains, including physical health, mental health, stress, and financial stability, the presence of an intellectual disability itself is not enough to terminate the rights of parents. Therefore, child protection systems, school systems, physicians, mental health practitioners, etc. must work with intellectually disabled parents to help them cultivate these attributes of successful parenting rather than deny them supports.
Current efforts to change how systems interact with intellectually disabled parents are looking promising. Organizations like the Georgetown University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) are doing amazing work to create real change and support for these parents. Clarissa Williamson, a home visitor with Georgetown University’s Parenting Support Program (PSP), works directly with parents that have intellectual disabilities in order to provide them with a wide range of services. Ms. Williamson administers mental health screenings, teaches healthy parenting practices, provides referrals to community resources, explains any information from physicians, teachers, or other professionals in simpler (plain) language. As a result, the parents she works with are successfully raising their children. Thus, when service providers take the time to understand parents with intellectual disabilities, adapt to their specific learning needs, help them develop, and build on their strengths, unwanted outcomes such as child abuse and neglect can be easily avoided. Ultimately, society must stop viewing intellectually disabled parents as incapable and must begin to understand that with proper guidance and support, parents with intellectual disabilities can parent just as effectively as any other parent.
MacIntyre, C., Stewart, A., & McGregor, S. (2019). The double‐edged sword of vulnerability: Explaining the persistent challenges for practitioners in supporting parents with intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 32(6), 1523–1534. http://doi:10.1111/jar.12647.
Sigurjonsdottir, H. B., & Rice, J. G. (2018). ‘Evidence’ of neglect as a form of structural violence: Parents with intellectual disabilities and custody deprivation. Social Inclusion, 6(2), 66-73. http://doi.org/10.17645/si.v6i2.1344.
Slayter, E. M., & Jensen, J. (2019). Parents with intellectual disabilities in the child protection system. Children and Youth Services Review, 98: 297-304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2019.01.013