Insight: Disability and Parenting

Susan finds it hard to multitask: she struggles to cook a meal and keep an eye on her toddler at the same time.


She finds it hard to make judgements when things aren’t black and white. Any ‘grey’ areas can be hard for her to understand.

“Like, the books said [my daughter] should be smiling at six months,” Susan tells Insight. “I’d wait for six months and go, ‘She ain’t smiling.’”

She and the child’s father both have intellectual disabilities and Susan also has a condition that affects her mobility and strength.

After the intervention of Victoria’s Department of Human Services, guardianship of Susan’s daughter was eventually given to Susan’s mother-in-law, Jane.

Susan is upset at losing guardianship of her young daughter but believes it’s in her child’s best interests. She sees her daughter for two hours per week.

“Now as my child is four and a half, I’m sometimes very tired after even two hours,” Susan says, “and I think, ‘Oh my God, how does Jane do it 24/7?’”

It’s not easy taking care of a toddler, says Jane, but she believes it’s the best outcome.

“It’s probably not what I’d planned to be doing at this stage of my life,” says Jane. “But like a lot of life, we don’t write the script and there are tremendous amounts of just delight in rearing a small child.”

Susan and Jane join families and child protection workers to discuss the delicate process of assessing a parent’s abilities.

Robyn Miller is a caseworker with the Victorian Department of Human Services. She assesses and investigates some of the department’s most complex cases of child protection and helps decide what’s in the child’s best interests.

Robyn says there are lots of reasons why parents with intellectual disabilities become involved with her department, beyond the actual disability itself. The parent might also have a mental health problem or have a partner who is violent.

“The research tells us that there’s a greater chance if you have an intellectual disability of also having a mental health problem and sometimes that is exacerbated because there’s a partner who had may be violent and controlling.

“It’s actually less about the intellectual disability,” Robyn adds. “It is about, ‘How is this child? And how are all these other things impacting on the life of this child? Their safety, their stability and their development overall?’”

But Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn, Director of the Centre for Disability Research and Policy at the University of Sydney, disagrees.

Although many people with intellectual disabilities do live in “quite poor socio economic circumstances” and women can often find themselves in abusive relationships, Professor Llewellyn believes they are judged far more harshly than other parents, and are over-represented in child protection cases.

“One of the reasons is that there is some discrimination. People do make judgments… on the basis of a name, a thing called intellectual disability.

“There can be many other reasons,” she tells Insight, “but there is definitely over representation and a part of that has to do with more notifications than you would expect to see.”

Watch the full Insight discussion about parenting and disabilities here.

You can join the discussion by using the #insightsbs hashtag on Twitter or by commenting on Insight’s Facebook page.


WATCH A PREVIEW – Susan on disability and parenting