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

Children with Disabilities and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act


Kim Musheno is Director of Legislative Affairs with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The incidence of disability among abused and neglected children is staggering. Too often, disability and child abuse follow two intertwined pathways. First, children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to child abuse, and some studies have demonstrated that children with disabilities are almost four times more likely to be victims of maltreatment than children without disabilities (Sullivan & Knutson, 1998). Second, many cases of abuse and maltreatment contribute to the development of childhood disabilities. According to one study by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, over a third of substantiated cases of maltreatment led to acquired disabilities (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, 1993). Preventing child abuse and neglect is integral to promoting the health, well-being, and maximum potential of all individuals, including individuals with disabilities. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA, P.L. 108-36) is one of the only federal programs that provides funding for prevention activities. The Keeping Children Safe Act of 2003 amended CAPTA and was signed into law on June 25, 2003. One of the key provisions is authorization for grants to states to (a) support collaboration among public health agencies, the child protection system, and private community-based programs; (b) provide child abuse and neglect prevention and treatment services; and (c) address the health needs, including mental health needs, of children identified as abused or neglected. This entails prompt, comprehensive health and developmental evaluations for children who are the subject of substantiated child maltreatment reports. Some of the other important provisions successfully incorporated include:

  • New eligibility requirements and support for training, technical assistance, research, innovative programs addressing linkages between the child protective system, and community-based health, mental health, and developmental evaluations.
  • Support for research on effects of maltreatment on child development and identification of successful early intervention services.
  • Support for research on voluntary relinquishment to foster care of low-income children in need of health or mental health services.
  • Provision for referral of a child under age 3, in a substantiated case of abuse or neglect, to early intervention services funded under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (P.L. 105-17, IDEA) Part C.
  • Language replacing statewide networks with community-based and prevention focused activities throughout Title II.
  • Language replacing “family resource and support program” with “programs and activities designed to strengthen and support families and prevent child abuse and neglect (through networks where appropriate).”
  • Emphasis on the importance of respite as a critical component of child abuse and neglect prevention in Title II.
  • Inclusion of families of children with disabilities, parents with disabilities, and organizations who work with such families is strongly emphasized throughout Title II, particularly in the eligibility section.

One of the most important but somewhat controversial changes mentioned above is the requirement that States develop provisions and procedures for referral of a child under the age of 3 who is involved in a substantiated case of child abuse or neglect to early intervention services funded under Part C of IDEA. Part C is a component of IDEA under which states have created their early intervention services system for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families. In spite of the fact that many of the children in the child welfare system are eligible for Part C, the rates of their referral to the early intervention program have been very low. However, the current early intervention system is struggling to serve the families now enrolled. The new CAPTA requirements will substantially increase the workload for providers of Part C evaluation and intervention services. Currently, Part C serves about 227,000 children (2% of the population under 3) nationwide (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Rough estimates suggest that an additional 167,000 children would need to be screened for eligibility for early intervention services as a result of the CAPTA amendments. And, from that number, approximately 44,000 could be enrolled in the Part C program (Rosenberg & Robinson, 2003).

Without additional resources to the Part C and CAPTA state agencies, the promise of the CAPTA amendments will not be realized. In addition to the increased numbers of children that Part C will assess and serve if referrals from child protection are regularized, the types of Part C services required may change. Specifically, it is likely that children involved with child protection will have social-emotional and behavioral issues more frequently than other children served by Part C. Therefore, Part C may need to enhance its ability to meet early childhood mental health needs. 

It is important for states to receive adequate Part C funds to meet the needs of young children and their families, and in particular to ensure that the CAPTA requirements regarding referrals to Part C continue to be implemented effectively. The Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD) is currently working with its partners to increase IDEA Part C funding as well as for all of the programs under CAPTA. Last year appropriators provided level funding for these programs. However, a last minute one percent across-the-board cut was enacted which actually lowered the amount these programs will receive. The President’s Fiscal Year 2007 budget proposal also provides level funding. AUCD urges all child welfare advocates to educate member of Congress about the need for more funding for these programs.


  • National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. (1993). A report on the maltreatment of children with disabilities (No. DHHS Contract No. 105-89-1630). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information.

  • Rosenberg, S., & Robinson, C. (2003). Is Part C ready for substantiated child abuse and neglect? Washington, DC: Zero to Three Press.

  • Sullivan, P. M., & Knutson, J. F. (1998). The association between child maltreatment and disabilities in a hospital-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse and Neglect, 22, 271–288.

  • U.S. Department of Education. (2000). Twenty-fourth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (p. 2, Part II-1). Washington, DC: Author.