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Vol. 9, No. 2
January 2004

Child Welfare Practice with Parents Who Have Cognitive Limitations

Darrin is a father with cognitive limitations who became involved with the child welfare system in 1998. Child protective services first paid a visit to his family after someone expressed concerns about the safety of Darrin’s young daughter, Diamond.

When they assessed the family, social workers identified substance abuse and parenting issues, areas of concern they felt were complicated by Darrin’s intellectual needs. Despite their efforts to support the family, child welfare workers eventually removed Diamond from the home.

Sadly, many child welfare stories involving parents who are cognitively limited end here. The tremendous needs of these parents are partly responsible, but insufficient training of child welfare workers, a lack of appropriate services, and outright discrimination can also be to blame.

Whatever the cause, experts estimate that more than 50% of all parents with cognitive limitations experience permanent or temporary removal of their children (Keltner & Tymchuk, 1992).

To child welfare workers who have been around awhile, this is not news. They know firsthand the frustration of trying to support these parents, and the disappointing outcomes that often result. Some cannot recall a single time when a child was reunified with a cognitively limited parent.

But it does happen. Darrin was lucky enough to live in an area where specialized services for parents with developmental disabilities were available. He had strong support from his family. Most importantly, Darrin and those around him truly believed he could succeed as a parent. Darrin’s telling of his story captures the resilience and the joy in fatherhood that helped his family succeed.

Darrin Tells His Story

It was kind of a shock when the County people stepped in. I broke down and cried. But my brothers and sister sat me down and let me know that I was raised from a good family. “You’re the dad,” they said, “and you can bring this child home.” They gave me the support and love I needed. . . .

So I went to the County and said, “Hey, I’m new to this. As a dad, what are my rights?” And they calmly sat me down and told me my rights and what I would have to do to get my child back. They called that the case plan. I said, “Well, what is the case plan?” The case plan, as told to me, was parenting class, urinalysis, and all that. So I did all that. . . .

My child went into foster care. It was a hurting feeling to see her cry. I’d leave her in the van that took her back. The strong person I am, I’d say, “It’s going to be okay, Diamond. Daddy’s going to bring you home”. . . . When she came home it was a real happy feeling. . . . I just want her to know that everything is going to be okay. And with her progress, it’s showing me I can do it, I can be a daddy.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Impact: Feature Issue on Supporting Parents Who Have Cognitive Limitations, 11(1), Spring 1998, published by the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

This issue of Practice Notes aims to help you achieve similar successes with parents who have cognitive limitations. To this end, it provides basic information about people with cognitive limitations, presents a tool for identifying them, and explores the way cognitive limitations can affect family-centered interventions.


Basic Information about People with Cognitive Limitations

Our Shameful Past

Identifying Parents with Cognitive Limitations

Family-Centered Practice with Parents with Cognitive Limitations

What these Parents Want in Support Services

A Lack of Appropriate Services

Specialized Program Model: Families on the Grow

Learn More about Working with Parents with Cognitive Limitations: Link to Training Matters

References for this Issue

Click here to read or print the entire issue as a pdf file

Additional resources related to this topic:

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