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Children with Disabilities: Implications within Child Welfare

  ·  Leann Down

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA is an equal opportunity law that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as others – namely, the ability to find employment, purchase goods and services, and participate in government programs. There have been steady accomplishments in disability rights over the past 25 years, with increased access to employment and infrastructure.

Yet, over 40 million Americans with disabilities continue to face disparities in socioeconomic status, education levels, access to healthcare, and overall well-being. Advocacy for veterans, youth in public schools or on playgrounds, senior citizens, and rural residents with disabilities are just a few of the communities that have organized around specific concerns targeting the needs of those with disabilities, leading to slow but continual progress toward widespread ADA compliance.

Such focused efforts are becoming increasingly necessary for youth with disabilities in child welfare, who often experience compounding factors that can interact to create worse outcomes. Although many foster youth have disabilities, multiple moves, school changes, and inconsistent adult advocacy for comprehensive and appropriate services means their specific needs are often overlooked.

Children with disabilities are over-represented in child welfare: it is estimated that 4% of children in the US have either a mental or physical disability, compared to 11% of those who enter the child welfare system. In addition to experiencing maltreatment at a rate between 1.68 and 3.44 times that of their peers, children with disabilities are at least 1.5 times more likely to be seriously harmed by the abuse or neglect experienced, leading to greater risk of involvement in child welfare. Although children with disabilities are not identified in crime statistic systems – making national trends difficult to measure – several studies have found that behavioral disorders and speech/language disorders each increase risk for physical abuse and neglect, respectively. This lack of consistent data represents a major barrier to designing, implementing, and evaluating prevention programs and services for this population.

Nevertheless, the data gathered from the National Youth in Transition Database in 2010 has provided some insight about foster youth receiving independent living services: among adolescents in foster care, about 40% have disabilities, and children with disabilities have worse outcomes than other foster youth. Older youth with disabilities are more likely to experience longer lengths of stay in out-of-home placements and higher rates of placement instability, and their transition plans are less likely to include goals for careers, independent living, or post-secondary education. A lack of child welfare involvement in special education planning, inconsistent advocate presence, and a lack of educational individualization based on the needs of foster youth in general may contribute, but information remains limited.

These trends become even more concerning when considering the disparities already experienced by youth of color and LGBTQ youth within child welfare, including overlapping systemic barriers, increased rates of placement in congregate care settings, and discrimination. For youth with disabilities who also identify as LGBTQ, a member of a racial or ethnic minority, or both, the effect is likely a combined “double burden.” This intersectional impact remains understudied, however, perpetuating the lack of awareness and lack of targeted programs and policies to better meet the needs of youth in state care.

As discussions of equity continue to shed light on the human experiences of those in often oppressed communities, the unique experiences of youth with disabilities in child welfare offer a vital, and often overlooked, perspective. Consciously including the needs and obstacles faced by foster youth with disabilities is a necessary addition to the conversation as we now move into the ADA’s 26th year.

Posted In: Child Welfare and Family Supports