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

Serving Children with Disabilities in the Child Welfare System: Barriers and Strategies


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

Traci LaLiberte is Program Coordinator with the Research and Training Center on Community Living at the University.

There are a number of barriers to providing services to children and youth with disabilities in the child welfare system. This article describes three that have the greatest impact: the need for greater disability competence on the part of child welfare service providers, the need to overcome systemic barriers, and the need for increased empirical knowledge. While there is limited research into best practices for serving children with disabilities and their families who are involved in the child welfare system, there are some important positive strategies that are being successfully used in a number of locations to address these barriers; this article presents three such strategies.

Need for Disability Competence

One barrier to serving children with disabilities is the lack of disability competence on the part of child welfare workers. They typically receive little training on disability issues in their formal education, and disability has not been a popular continuing education topic in the realm of child welfare. Because of the lack of disability competence, child welfare workers who have cases involving people with disabilities may find challenges relating to their lack of knowledge. In fact, in a recent survey of child protection managers and supervisors, workers most often cited specific factors related to the disability of an individual as a barrier to serving children with disabilities in the child welfare system (Lightfoot & LaLiberte, in press). Child protection employees cited such disability barriers as communication challenges, behaviors associated with particular disabilities, and the chronic nature of some disabilities, such as mental illness. However, the focus on a specific disability may actually reflect the lack of disability competence by workers within child welfare agencies. In this same survey, child protection managers and supervisors discussed the lack of disability knowledge by their workers and allied professionals, such as law enforcement and court personnel, as another key barrier to serving people with disabilities. Because of their lack of knowledge and skills in relation to disabilities, child protection workers may perceive that issues surrounding a particular disability are the problem. However, from a social model view of disability, the barrier is not the disability itself, but is rather the lack of knowledge of professionals on how to work with people with disabilities and accommodate their needs.

Systemic Barriers

Even for child welfare workers who have the knowledge and skills in serving children and youth with disabilities, there are a number of systemic barriers impacting their ability to provide appropriate services. A top systemic barrier is lack of financial resources and funding to provide families of children with disabilities the support that they need to parent their children.In addition, there is a shortage of child welfare providers who have expertise in both child welfare and disabilities, and those specialized providers that do exist often have long waiting lists.

Another systemic barrier relates to the multitude of systems with which a child with a disability interfaces. A family involved in the child protection system is often receiving mandated services from the child protection system, along with voluntary services from the disability service system. These two systems not only have different philosophies, but also have separate legislation, rules, and bureaucratic procedures. Because these two systems are generally not well-integrated, the resulting red tape is a serious barrier to obtaining services. Further, the federal and state laws mandating child protection services usually are not written with disability accommodations such as extended timeframes or modified parent-ing classes in mind. For example, the timeframes mandated by the Adoption and Safe Families Act placement can cause barriers in working with children with disabilities because a longer time-frame may be needed to obtain services or for the family to otherwise comply with an order from child protection. Such accommodations are often not provided.

Rural areas often have additional barriers to services, including lack of service providers, especially specialized providers such as child psychologists, specialized parenting classes or accessible foster care (Lightfoot & LaLiberte, in press). The services that are available are often a long distance from where many families live. Parents of children with disabilities frequently have to drive long distances to access needed services, and those without private transportation may be unable to receive the supportive services they need. A final rural concern is that child welfare agencies in rural areas may not have a critical mass of cases involving children or youth with disabilities that is necessary to develop expertise in disability issues.

Too Little Empirical Knowledge

A final barrier is the general lack of empirical knowledge about prevalence of children with disabilities in the child welfare system and appropriate strategies and services to meet their needs. While many professionals in the child welfare and disability arenas would anecdotally point to the high rates of maltreatment involving children with disabilities, there have only been several studies actually measuring the prevalence of such abuse (Sullivan & Knutson, 2000; Westat, 1993). Only 19 state child protection systems collect data related to disability in their state registries, and only 7 require child protection workers to be trained in recognizing and entering disability data (Bonner, Crow, & Hensley, 1997). There is even less information on how child welfareagencies serve clients with disabilities and no empirical studies on child protection strategies that are effective for families with a child with a disability.

Increasing Disability Competence

While all child welfare workers need not become experts in disability services, they should know enough about disability issues to recognize when a child is in need of disability screening, and know who to collaborate with in the disability field. Trainers on disability competency are available in many communities through disability advocacy and resource organizations, as well as state or county disability services agencies. Further, some social work departments at local colleges and universities can provide staff training in serving people with disabilities in the child welfare system. Some agencies have increased their disability competence by the use of specialty child protection workers or units (Lightfoot & LaLiberte, in press) with particular training and expertise in disability issues. For agencies that have specialty workers or units, all child protection cases involving people with disabilities are handled by these experts.


Currently, the greatest need is for increased collaboration among personnel in the child welfare and disability fields. Informal collaboration with disability professionals is the most common way that child welfare workers gain information and skills needed in serving clients with disabilities (Lightfoot & LaLiberte, in press). These informal collaborations can involve a child welfareworker simply asking a question regarding resources, or could involve a disability worker aiding a child welfare worker in assessing risk of maltreatment. Some public child welfare agencies also have formalized such collaboration. Some agencies have two case workers – one from the child protection unit and one from developmental disabilities unit – working together on all cases involving a child with a disability who has an open child protection case. Other child protection units team all of their cases with someone in the disability unit, which can aid in identifying children who may be eligible for disability services. When these types of collaborative efforts work well, the workers can overcome some of the systemic barriers mentioned above.

Conducting Further Research

Finally, there needs to be further research on children with disabilities involved in the child welfare system. Federal regulations should be changed to require child welfare agencies to report on the number of children with disabilities involved in the child welfare system, and the outcomes of these children’s cases. This would provide data that could enable researchers to further address the resource and services barriers.


In order for children with disabilities involved in the child welfare system to achieve the best possible outcomes, the system must provide accessible, appropriate services to these children and their families. The strategies in this article provide a starting point.


  • Bonner, B. L., Crow, S. M., & Hensley, L. D. (1997). State efforts to identify maltreated children with disabilities: A follow-up study. Child Maltreatment, 2(1), 52–60.

  • Lightfoot, E., & LaLiberte, T. (2006). Approaches to child protection case management for cases involving people with disabilities. Child Abuse & Neglect.

  • Sullivan, P., & Knutson, J. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse and Neglect, 24(10), 1257–1273.

  • Westat. (1993). A report on the maltreatment of children with disabilities. Wahsington, DC: National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect.