My response to the National Council on Disability’s (wonderful) new report on parents with disabilities

BID6vVwCUAABAqfEarlier this morning, the National Council on Disability (NCD) co-sponsored a congressional briefing on ensuring the rights of parents with disabilities.

Co-sponsors included the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers and the Child Welfare League of America.  It was a full house, my co-panelists were three inspiring women – and we had a lively (but too short) discussion about where to go from here.

You can see some of the highlights of the briefing by looking at the Twitter feed that uses the hashtag #rockingthecradle.

The briefing was held as a follow-up to the release of the NCD’s report entitled Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and their Children.

I was honored to be invited to represent the National Association of Social Workers in responding to this report.  It is a wonderful and comprehensive report on a topic that has long needed airing.  Due to several requests, I am including my comments from today’s briefing in this post.

NC7_0319My remarks:

I am honored to be here today with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) to address the ways in which our profession can best work towards implementing this report’s recommendations for parents with disabilities and their children. If I am really honest, however, I am especially honored to be here today as the child of a parent with a disability. My mother had a very serious case of juvenile onset diabetes which was difficult to manage, including regular short-term diabetic comas, many hospitalizations and vision problems.

Many of the compelling and indeed tragic stories about parents with disabilities and the child protection system that were relayed in Rocking the Cradle resonated with my own mother’s stories. She used to tell me about how her family, friends, colleagues and care professionals all either assumed she would not, could not or should not be a parent.

So as I look back on my childhood, while it was sometimes difficult or even scary for me to observe my mothers’ struggles with her condition, my parents helped me to understand what was happening. And isn’t this what parents are supposed to do – help children to navigate what can be a difficult world with creativity? Isn’t that what parents are doing today in speaking with their children about the Boston Marathon bombings?

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Speakers at the Congressional Briefing on Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities, April 2013.

So, I can see that as a child, I learned much that was relevant to my future career in social work, lessons that were learned through the example of my parents’
parenting:

-The need for careful planning
-The power of creativity in the face of impediments
-The importance of self-determination
-And above all else, the need for informal circles of support (referred to in
the report as “interdependent parenting.”)

Here’s the thing – I was lucky to learn these lessons via experiencing my mother’s parenting. While my graduate education in social work was wonderful in encouraging me to consider a strengths-based approach to understanding human behavior in the social environment, people with disabilities – much less parents with disabilities – were rarely if ever included in the curriculum.  As a young (and very green) social work intern, I partnered with attorneys at Washington Square Legal Services in New York, NY. These attorneys represented parents in child protection (abuse, neglect, termination of parental rights) and custody cases. I walked into that work knowing that, well, of course, parents with disabilities could do just that – parent. But as I looked around me in the family law sector, this view was rarely shared. Disability appeared to be an automatic rule-out for parenting.

NC7_0299 Later in my career, I “switched sides” and began working with attorneys representing the subject children on child protection and custody cases with the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division. When appropriate, which was most of the time, I took a family-focused approach, partnering with parents with disabilities to find solutions targeted at family preservation or reunification. Of course, the standard services we used to support such efforts were usually cognitively, culturally or physically inaccessible – and results took too much time for the court on many occasions. The need for both time and appropriate accommodations were often the focus of our (usually failed) arguments in court. If I am really honest with you, I will tell you that it was difficult not to acculturate to a child-focused, path of least resistance type of social work practice.

Nowadays, I am social work educator and researcher focused on disability and child protection matters. I teach specialized courses for child protection workers. Through listening to my students while teaching – and through my disability and child welfare-related research with my colleagues Dr. Cheryl Springer, Dr. Liz Lightfoot and Dr. Monica Leisey, I have observed that the presence of a disability alone is often considered a central risk factor for the safety and well-being of children in child protection. However, while common risk factors for child protection involvement, such as intimate partner violence, substance abuse and mental health challenges are common among people with disabilities, in most cases, the real issue impacting a family involved with child protection is inaccessible services for those challenges, as opposed to a particular disability.

Clearly, there is the need for a paradigm shift in the way child protection work is engaged in – and the recommendations presented in Rocking the Cradle show us the way. My three sets of recommendations focus only on specific suggestions for professional social work education and training. I distinguish between education and training. Education focuses on “how to think” while training focuses on specific techniques and intervention approaches, for example.

NC7_0233Recommendations for professional social work education:

1. You may note my use of the term professional social work education – I use this term as many do not realize is that much of the child protection workforce does not have such training – sometimes even when their title represents them as such. Therefore, increasing the presence of professionally educated social workers in the child protection workforce is vital. This can be accomplished via continued support of funding mechanisms such as the Title IV-E program that allow workers to seek professional social work education.  I would also be thrilled to see the development of similar training programs focused on practice with all people with disabilities. After all, 50% of us will experience a disability at some point in our life – preparation for disability-related practice should be central to social work education but in my experience is often not considered “a social work issue.”

2. However, even if all child protection workers had such degrees, our social work curricula require significant renovations if we are to best support the rights of parents with disabilities. We must include substantive disability-related content in our curricula, particularly a strengths-based focus on understanding environments as unaccommodating to people with disabilities versus the deficit-driven “medical model of disability.”

3. Introduce students to the principle of universal design as it applies to communication with, assessment of and intervention with parents with disabilities, there are examples of such technologies through the report.

4. Adopt both “atypical” and “typical” cases (about individuals and families) as teaching tools in clinical and applied theory courses.

5. Develop credit-bearing modules including co-instruction with academic and internship instructors on practice with parents with disabilities involved in
child protection cases.

Implications for training in child protection settings:

1. As new workers enter their introductory training, we need to embrace the credo of the disability civil rights movement by implementing a “nothing about us without us” approach. I would like to see the participation of a range of parents with disabilities who can explain what does, and does not work for them in their parenting.

2. Train workers to avoid the “mis-application of able-bodied norms to the client with a disability” in favor of universally-designed interventions and
expectations, including acknowledgement of the potential for indigenous adaptations in the parent-child relationship, by both parents and children.

3. Assist child protection investigators and caseworkers to be aware of their own potential biases – for example – not jumping to the assumption that
disability is a central risk factor.

4. Encourage casework that is child-centered, but family-focused and given common service accessibility challenges, foster a culture of acceptance for
zealous advocacy when violations of either the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act are identified.

5. Develop formal disability specialist jobs in child protection offices for consultation and teaming efforts. This follows the existing model that
many have states have used vis-à-vis creating specialists in the area of domestic violence.

6. In cases where psychologists are not conducting parenting capacity assessments, (and in my experience it is often the case that child protection
workers or social workers also do this work) we need to encourage the development and use of guidelines for this work.

Recommendations for training in disability service settings:

1. Support a disability service sector “culture” that acknowledges parenting as both a protected right and a major life activity that many people with
disabilities will seek to engage in.

2. Encourage a case practice focus that recognizes both the health and well-being of individual clients with disabilities and their roles as parents.

3. Develop specialized independent living curricula that recognize the diverse needs of parents with disabilities – and hire peer support workers that are
able to implement such curricula effectively.

4. Promote cross-system collaboration between disability and child protection entities on both a systems and a person-to-person level – where the
learning and potential for real change really takes place.

5. Encourage disability system caseworkers to be aware of the ways in which child protection-related services and court processes may violate the legal
rights of parents with disabilities and make this an expected part of a given caseworker’s job.

Now, many of the specific recommendations I make here relate to training. However, given what is known about best-practices, namely not relying on “one
shot” trainings without follow up or reinforcement during worker supervision – I would encourage social work researchers to partner with child protection and
disability agencies to develop evaluation projects. These evaluations should focus on developing longitudinal studies that assess both post-training confidence and
competence as it relates to their work with parents with disabilities.

Taken together, these recommendations present a beginning set of suggestions with which the diverse members of the social work profession can wrestle with
as they work towards securing the rights of parents with disabilities and their children, an effort central to our profession’s core values.

Thank you.

Elspeth M. Slayter, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Associate Professor, School of Social Work, Salem State University, Salem, Massachusetts

After obtaining her Master’s degree in Social Work from New York University, Dr. Slayter gained extensive social work practice experience with parents with disabilities and their children involved in child protection, family law and/or criminal court matters in Brooklyn and the Bronx, New York. Following her doctoral education in Social Policy from Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management, Dr. Slayter began her career as a social work educator, community-based researcher and trainer.

Currently, Dr. Slayter’s work focuses on graduate level curriculum development and teaching in the areas of social work practice with people with disabilities, child and family policy and applied research methods. Through the School’s partnership with the training arm of Massachusetts’ child protection authority, Dr. Slayter teaches courses designed especially for child protection workers with Federally-funded fellowships supporting their graduate social work education. Dr. Slayter also provides disability-related in-service trainings for a range of community-based social service agencies.

As a member of the National Council on Social Work Education’s Council on Disability and Persons with Disabilities, Dr. Slayter has advocated for greater inclusion of disability-relevant material in social work curricula and the improved accommodation of people with disabilities in social work education. Dr. Slayter’s publications and current research agenda address the experience of people with disabilities in the child protection, behavioral health and social
service sectors.

Today, Dr. Slayter will address the specific ways in which the social work profession can
respond to the findings and recommendations presented in Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and their Children.

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