Impact Feature Issue on Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System

Child Welfare Services: How Children with Disabilities Move Through the System


Traci LaLiberte is Program Coordinator with the Research and Training Center on Community Living, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Elizabeth Lightfoot is Assistant Professor with the School of Social Work at the University.

When a child with a disability enters the child welfare system as a result of a report of abuse or neglect in their home environment, a complicated collaboration must take place between professionals who understand disability and those whose responsibility is child protection. Children with complex medical needs who require specialized daily health care, children with mobility limitations who need wheelchair-accessible environments and assistance with moving about, children with cognitive disabilities who need individual-specific support and interaction in their everyday routine, as well as children with other types of disabilities, all call upon the child welfare system to understand and respond appropriately to their needs. Conversely, to support such children within the child welfare system requires the participation of those with expertise related to the child’s disability. This necessitates understanding how the child welfare process works and how disability service providers, advocates, and other professionals should be involved.

The following presents an overview of the child welfare system and of the process children with disabilities and their families go through when engaged in this traditionally involuntary service system. The structure of child welfare services varies from state to state, and in some states from county to county or region to region. However, all child welfare agencies carry out four similar tasks: intake, investigation and assessment, ongoing services, and permanency services. For each of these tasks, child welfare workers need access to expertise in disability. Workers who do not themselves have such knowledge should involve experts in the disability field – which may include professionals from medical and disability services areas, disability advocacy agency staff, individuals with disabilities and their families, researchers, and others – when working with children or youth with disabilities. This collaboration between child welfare personnel and those experienced with disability is essential to ensuring that children with disabilities and their parents get effective, appropriate, and fair services.

Intake Services

During intake, the child welfare agency receives a report of suspected child abuse or neglect by either a person mandated by law to report such abuse, a family member or a community member. The child welfare worker seeks to obtain as much information from the reporter as possible and creates a formal report for the agency. It is important at this stage of the intake process for information regarding the disability of a child or youth to be included in the report so that the child welfare staff can plan for appropriate, accessible services. At the point of intake, child welfare staff will make a decision to accept or not accept the report, based upon its fit with the agency’s mission and the state statutes to which the agency is accountable. If the report is accepted, child welfare will investigate the case for validity of the allegations.

Investigation and Assessment Services

During investigation and assessment, the child welfare worker gathers information about the current allegation of abuse and/or neglect and assesses the current functioning of the family. The child welfare worker should be in contact with all family members, the reporter if possible, and any other important contacts, such as school personnel, day care providers, medical providers, therapists, other service providers, and law enforcement. Often during the investigation and assessment period, child welfare workers rely on disability experts inside or outside the social services agency. Disability experts can provide consultation on communication techniques for interviewing children with communication disabilities, appropriate care for children with certain types of disabilities, and accommodation issues. Children may need to see a medical provider or other specialist to determine the nature of marks, bruises, or other physical conditions that are pertinent to the allegations, and child welfare workers may need to seek out providers who specialize in the care of children with disabilities.

Child welfare workers generally use a risk assessment tool to guide them in making assessments. On such tools, the presence of disability can represent an increased potential for abuse in a family; however, the presence of appropriate service providers or other supportive activities, such as participation in parenting or advocacy groups, can offset this risk. Child welfare workers will typically ask questions related to the child or youth’s disability to determine if an increased risk of maltreatment is present. An example of such questions include (Wahlgren, Metsger & Brittain, 2004, p. 230):

  • What kind of kind of physical demands result from the child’s disability?
  • What is the financial impact of the child’s disability?
  • How do family members react to the child’s disability (e.g., rejection, guilt, jealousy, feelings of inadequacy)?
  • Are there cultural or religious factors that would shape family perceptions (Wayman, Lunch, & Hanson, 1990)?
  • To what/where/whom does the family assign responsibility for their child’s disability (Wayman et al., 1990)?
  • How does the family view the role of fate in their lives (Wayman et al., 1990)?
  • How does the parent or caregiver respond to the child with special needs?
  • How does the family view their role in intervening with their child? Do they feel they can make a difference, or do they consider it hopeless (Wayman et al., 1990)?

Based upon the investigation and assessment process, child welfare workers make a determination regarding abuse or neglect. The determination can result in the case being (a) substantiated and the family is provided ongoing services in the presence of abuse or neglect; (b) substantiated and closed if the risk for abuse or neglect is no longer present; (c) unsubstantiated and closed if the abuse or neglect did not occur; and (d) unsubstantiated and the family is provided services when abuse or neglect is not present but the family is at-risk. Some child welfare agencies do not provide for the last determination due to fiscal restraints or agency mission. At times, the risk assessment may indicate a need for the immediate removal of a child from the home.

Ongoing Family Services

During ongoing family services, the child welfare worker provides families with services with the goal of restoring the family to a situation in which the children can be safely cared for in their own home. During this phase, the children may be living at home, in temporary foster care or some other appropriate residential setting. In cases that involve a family member with a disability, disability professionals are critical to the services provided to the family. For children with disabilities, the disability professionals may play a crucial role in assisting the child welfare agency to access and secure funding for appropriate resources, such as respite care, personal assistance or home modifications. They may also help in locating or designing accessible family services, such as parenting skill training geared towards parenting children with disabilities, or in finding foster care providers experienced in caring for children with disabilities. If a parent has an intellectual disability, the disability expert’s assessment of parental functioning and safety is often critical to the case decisions made by the child welfare worker. Observations and information offered by disability professionals may be used by child welfare workers in ongoing case management, risk assessments, decisions of removal, decisions to return children home, designing case plans, and decisions to close cases.

Permanency Services

When a child welfare agency determines that parents are unable to change sufficiently to take care of their children safely and in a timely manner, the child welfare system provides permanency services. The Adoption and Safe Families Act dictates the amount of time a parent has to make the necessary changes to have their child returned to their care. If they aren’t able to meet the indicated timeframe, their parental rights will likely be “terminated.” The agency will pursue a permanency hearing in court, requesting either a transfer of guardianship or the termination of parental rights. During this phase, child welfare provides services primarily to the child, while services to parents may cease. Child welfare workers must find a permanent setting in which the child can live. In cases involving a child with a disability, this means the worker will rely heavily on the disability professionals involved in the case to articulate the child’s needs (in addition to the child and family) and to aid in the search for an appropriate permanent placement.

In addition to the four common child welfare tasks, some public child welfare agencies have embraced child welfare reforms and also offer services such as alternative response and family group decision-making. These services provide child welfare agencies with different ways of interacting with families to achieve positive outcomes for children and their families. Alternative response provides the agency flexibility in responding to a family where the risk is lower and the provision of services to that family may bring about a stable and safe situation. For a family with a child or youth with a disability, this form of child welfare intervention may be all they need to receive assistance and services. Family group decision-making typically involves extended family members in the case planning process in an attempt to use resources within their own familial structure to plan for the safety and well-being of the children. Again, this approach may be beneficial to families in which a child or youth has a disability. Extended family members may brainstorm ways in which they can come together to support the child and the parents.

Cross-System Collaboration

Collaboration between child welfare professionals and other key professionals is critical throughout a family’s child welfare involvement. Disability and other key professionals should be contacted for collateral information in the early stages of a case in order to gather information regarding the child’s and family’s strengths and challenges as well as their participation in past and present services. If a family case is determined to require ongoing child welfare services, it is vital that the family be asked to involve other key professionals in the service planning process. Professionals, such as disability professionals and advocates, often have a better understanding of the available resources for a person with a disability, as well as funding linkages, than the child welfare professionals may have. A strong working relationship between the family, child welfare professionals, and disability professionals will ensure that a holistic view of problems and solutions.


Child welfare professionals aim to provide effective, appropriate, and fair services to all of the people they serve. That goal is more likely to be achieved when child welfare professionals, disability professionals, and the family work together. The information disability professionals can provide related to appropriate and accessible supports and services not only helps families currently involved in child welfare, but could lead to more families of children with disabilities avoiding abusive and/or neglectful situations in the future. While the nature of the services provided by the two fields can be quite dissimilar, particularly as child welfare is largely an involuntary service while disability services are voluntary, improved collaboration between these two fields is essential.


  • Wahlgren, C., Metsger, L., & Brittain, C. (2004). Assessment. In C. Brittain, D. Esquibel, & Hunt (Eds.), Helping in child protective services: A competency-based casework handbook. New York: Oxford University Press.