Child Care Proceedings and the Family Rights of Parents with Intellectual Disabilities in Ireland

International research shows that parents with intellectual disabilities are many times more likely to have their children taken into care, writes Susan Doyle. The right to family is enforced by the Courts and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, but there is a lack of support required to keep families together.

  • Parents with intellectual disabilities are many times more likely to have their children taken into care
  • The Courts and International law say there’s a right to have a family
  • Many of the supports that people with disability need to have a family are not being provided
  • Without these supports that rights of people to have a family will be violated

International research shows that parents with intellectual disabilities are many times more likely to have their children taken into care than parents without disabilities. Both the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stress the need to recognise the family rights of people with disabilities. However, in Ireland the lack of targeted supports necessary to enable people with disabilities to care for their children often results in children being taken into care. This lack of support deprives both parents and children of family rights.

The Carol Coulter Child Care Law Reporting Project was established in 2012 to report on cases concerning child welfare before Irish courts. These cases raise fundamental questions about child care law in Ireland and the level of support available to parents with intellectual disabilities.

A disproportionate amount of parents with intellectual disabilities are involved in child care proceedings. For example, in 2015 almost 7.5% of the cases reported featured a parent with an intellectual disability (usually the mother). This is a significant number considering it is estimated that just over 1% of the general population has an intellectual disability. Dr. Coulter noted that in reality, the number is likely to be higher as many of the parents involved in these cases were not assessed.

Many of the cases concerning parents with intellectual disabilities resulted in care orders being put in place until the child or children reached the age of 18, with access rights being granted to parents. A care order involves a child being removed from its parents and taken into the care of the state. A care order generally results in a foster home placement or in some cases, children are placed with relatives.

There are a number of variables which affect the outcome of child care cases such as the timing of assessments and the level of family and state support for parents with intellectual disabilities.

Parental Assessments

One important issue which frequently arises is that a parent’s cognitive ability is determined after the parenting capacity assessment is carried out, and therefore parenting capacity assessments are not tailored to the parent’s ability to understand what was required of them. In her 2015 report, Dr. Coulter recommended that where there is concern about a parent’s ability to engage with services, a cognitive capacity assessment should be carried out prior to a parenting capacity assessment and any subsequent parenting capacity assessment should be tailored to the parent’s cognitive ability.

Family Support

The level of family support appears to have a significant effect on the outcome of many cases concerning parents with intellectual disabilities. In one reported case, a care order was put in place when their father was no longer in a position to co-parent the children with their mother, who had a disability. In another case, a mother’s aunt and mother were unable to help raise the children and a care order was put in place until the children reached the age of 18.

Supports for Parents with Intellectual Disabilities

In her 2015 report, Dr. Coulter also noted that both parents and children with intellectual disabilities require appropriate and targeted support services, and that many parents can adequately care for their children given these supports.

Assessments are often carried out late, sometimes after the child care proceedings have already commenced. National Disability Authority research has found that there is generally a lack of support and parenting programmes for parents with intellectual disabilities in Ireland, and even if diagnosed earlier, having a mild intellectual disability does not trigger any supports from disability services.

The range of supports available now are entirely unsuitable and are not tailored to parents specific needs. For example, in one case, a mother whose children were the subject of a supervision order said there were so many people coming to the house with instructions about caring for the children that she became confused.

Service providers are not adequately trained to recognise and respond to parents’ specific difficulties. As a result, care order proceedings can become adversarial. Dr. Coulter noted that it would be far more beneficial if parents and Tusla could work together to achieve a positive outcome for all concerned.

The Future for Parents with Intellectual Disabilities?

Improved supports are necessary to reduce the number of children being taken into care and to ensure Ireland’s compliance with international law obligations. The UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities stresses the need to oppose all discrimination against people with disabilities and to recognise their family rights. The European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that a state can violate their human rights obligations, where children are removed from the care of parents with intellectual disabilities and adequate supports have not been offered to parents.

Dr. Coulter recommends that the services of the National Disability Authority, Inclusion Ireland, the National Advocacy Service and other support bodies for people with disabilities should be engaged in designing and providing tailored supports for parents with intellectual disabilities. Such supports might include early intervention to identify support needs, access to independent advocacy, parenting courses, information and long-term individualised supports.

Author Bio

Susan Doyle is an advocacy project worker with Inclusion Ireland. She joined Inclusion Ireland in January 2017 as part of the community engagement team. Susan’s background is in law. She practiced as a solicitor in Ireland from 2011 to 2016, and has a certificate in human rights law from the Law Society of Ireland and a Masters in International Human Rights Law and Public Policy from University College Cork.

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