2004 Jordan Institute
9, No. 2
Identifying Parents with Cognitive Limitations
Identifying parents with cognitive limitations is an essential first step for social workers interested in the safety, permanence, and well-being of their children. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily an easy task.
During an initial encounter, the majority of people with developmental disabilities may seem intellectually normal. Janice Doyle, a family assessment social worker with Alamance County DSS, recalls her surprise when she learned that a parent she had dealt with several times had an IQ of 56. These parents can be very streetwise, Doyle says.
People with cognitive limitations have good reason to hide their disability. As explained elsewhere in this issue, there is long-standing and deep-rooted prejudice against people with cognitive limitations. To avoid stigmatization, some people lie about the fact that they attended special education classes while they were in school. Others refuse badly needed services because in order to receive them they must accept a label such as mentally retarded.
This can be true even in the midst of a child welfare intervention. As one expert put it, Most of the mothers with mental retardation I have met over the years would prefer to be called irresponsible rather than mentally retarded (Keltner, 1998).
Parents with cognitive limitations often behave like other parents involved with the child welfare system. They may be suspicious and resentful of the intrusion of child welfare workers into their lives. Many times these feelings are based on negative personal experiences with schools and other institutions, and on the very real fear that CPS workers will take their children.
Failing to recognize a parents intellectual needs can have devastating consequences. If their needs go unidentified, parents may be seen by the system as uncooperative and resistant, fail to receive the supports they require, and lose their children forever.
Only a psychologist or other qualified professional can accurately assess a parents level of cognitive function. Pre-diagnostic tools like the one below can help child welfare workers identify the parents who might benefit from such a cognitive evaluation.
The tool on this page was developed by the Families on the Grow Program at Wake County Human Services based on its analysis of more than 30 traits exhibited by cognitively limited parents involved with CPS. Parents identified by the tool as possibly needing formal cognitive assessment are referred to Laura Quinn or another psychologist for one-on-one evaluation. If this evaluation shows that parents have definite intellectual needs they are eligible to participate in a specialized program, Families on the Grow.
Although most child welfare agencies do not have this kind of in-house expertise, this tool may help them identify parents who could benefit from a formal evaluation by a qualified professional.
Readers may also find the University of Michigan School of Social Work's Training Program for Child Welfare Supervisors to be a useful resource on this topic. See its "Screening for Mental Retardation/Cognitive Limitations." at <http://www.ssw.umich.edu/tpcws/articles/screening_for_mental_retardation_cognitive_limitations.pdf>.