Thursday, July 6, 2017

When a parent of a disabled child is accused of child abuse

I gaped at my computer screen as I read a message from a mom I've known online for years. She's a teacher with three children, including a medically complex one with disabilities. Someone had reported her to her state's child protective services because her daughter had a significant diaper rash and bruises, and is underweight.

This mom was understandably shaken. I know her as well as any friend I've made through the blogosphere over the years. She's smart, she has a great sense of humor, she cares deeply about all her kids and she has done her best for her daughter. Her daughter, she noted, bruises easily; the diaper rash was being treated by a pediatrician; and she is under a GI's care for her weight.

A caseworker paid a surprise visit to her house, examined her three children's bodies, inspected the home (including examining the fridge's contents), asked a long list of questions about her parenting style and requested to speak with each child separately, away from the parents. She said she saw nothing that concerned her, and that the case would be closed after she spoke with two doctors and a friend of the family's. While the caseworker was not allowed to say who reported her, when my friend heard that it came from someone who "had" to she was pretty sure it was a new classroom paraprofessional.

It's true that "bruises easily" is something you might hear an abusive parent claim. It's also true that children with disabilities are more vulnerable than others to abuse, especially ones who have challenges with communication or who don't understand social situations well. While there's a lack of large-scale studies on the topic, approximately one in three children with a disability are victims of some form of maltreatment versus one in ten nondisabled children, as this Arc paper notes.

But here's the thing: Children with disabilities can be more likely than others to have weight issues, due to eating challenges, and to hurt themselves because of physical impairment. As their parents, we are acutely aware of this. Max sometimes trips when he walks or loses his balance on uneven surfaces. Before he could really communicate, when he took a bath at night I'd occasionally find a bruise or scrape on one of his limbs that he couldn't explain, and it would unnerve me. Had it happened at school? On the bus? With the babysitter? How? He has a small chip on one of his front teeth; to this day, I am haunted by how it got there.

At the same time, these mystery injuries make parents of children with special needs particularly
susceptible to coming under fire. And as mothers and fathers who put super-human effort into taking care of our children's developmental and medical needs, it can be a crushing blow to think that anyone suspects us of doing them harm.

A couple of months ago, Max was headed up our basement stairs after an occupational therapy session, except he got overly excited and went too fast. He fell backwards, his tumble broken by a utility cart. Max got some pretty nasty scratches on his back, including one long red one that ran from his shoulder to his lower back.

His school nurse emailed me that week: "Just want to confirm with you about the long scratch on Max's back, he said he fell down the stairs at home."

I felt a twinge of OMG and a defensive reaction of "Does she think we did something wrong? How could she think that?" But I got a grip and realized she was doing her job, and looking out for Max. I responded that it happened following a therapy session as Max climbed the stairs while the therapist was there, and that was that.

I am not saying that parents of kids with disabilities should be given the benefit of the doubt when something seems to be up with a child—to not report suspicions would be doing children a disservice. Besides, teachers and other school professionals are legally required to report possible abuse or neglect. There are awful parents out there who do terrible things to even the most defenseless children. The safety guards set up by schools and states exist for good reason.

Just know that if you ever get questioned by a teacher, a nurse or an authority about your child's well-being, try so hard not to take it personally, as I learned and my friend found out the even harder way. Logically, she gets that—her case was closed after three weeks as "unsubstantiated"—but her heart isn't yet there.

"Moving forward, the difficult part will be working with the school and trusting them with our nonverbal daughter, when we know it was a staff member who called," she says. "I have to believe that whoever did this did it out of concern for my daughter, although it kills me that someone thought she was neglected or abused. We are far from perfect, but we try damn hard. We have fought for this girl since the minute she was born, and that will never change."


  1. While I DO feel badly for your friend (I cannot imagine how scary that must have been, and I'm glad it worked out positively!), I can't help but consider that certain professionals have a duty to report anything worrisome. It does not always mean that they are trying to cause problems. These rules do a lot of good for children who need them, too. One day, when I become a teacher, I will have a duty to report, and I hope and pray I never need to. I certainly never want to. However, I would much rather report something than not report something and leave my future students potentially in danger. Nothing will make me happier than a report that goes unfounded.

    My parents were questioned several times when I was a toddler (due to several ER trips because of my poor balance and once an unfounded situation with my non-disabled brother) and nobody in the situation wants to assume the parents are abusive. They truly want to confirm that all is well.

    I wish all the best for your friend.

  2. As a teacher and now instructor who teaches professional development courses in child abuse and boundary invasion requirements, it is the law that teachers must report to CPS on reasonable cause of suspicion of any child abuse issue, which the WA appeals court ruled in a case here that this extends to all areas, even if the teacher is at home.

    The courts here ruled in a case in 08 that annual trainings are required for school staff on what to report and how to follow the courts rulings. The laws here make it a felony not to report and jail time and permanent loss of certification is mandatory.

  3. Yes, everyone in the teaching profession (from teacher assistants to principals) is required by law to report any possible signs of neglect, abuse, or anything unusual. If the paraprofessional is new, s/he was probably unaware of your friend's child's normal status quo. As a teacher, I imagine your friend is quite familiar with this law. However, as a parent I'm sure it came as a great surprise.

  4. Considering that I may be a teacher or a child psychologist in the future, I'm going to have to be vigilant about this kind of stuff.

  5. Did not finish my post.DFS has no right to check out the cupboards are the fridge without just cause.And never allow the worker alone with the child.If that want to check out there body tell them you will do with a doctor in the room.The law is on yourside, remember that.Most Dfs workers are not trained social workers.The may only a basic A.A and a B.S. There are only trained in nothing.
    I am a social worker, and alot of I learned from education and a great lawyer friend.( I have walked in y'alls shoes. Good Luck.

    1. When I was hotlined, the investigator told me they had to make sure there was a working toilet and food. I live in Missouri.

  6. You said one thing that I wanted to point out, the nurse called and asked you about it. Not one time they reported something did the school ask me about it. They just assume the worst and next thing I know someone is knocking on my door. Or even worse its a case of revenge as the last time because I insisted they do their job and treat his behavioral problem instead of just calling me to pick him up.

    1. Depending on the situation, a nurse will not call. It is a tip that you will be hotlined.

  7. they have to report of they see any possible abuse or neglect.

  8. Ellen, you know my work as an author, activist and disability Mom. I have been accused of abuse and was investigated by children's aid. It was horrendous and traumatising. Our son had uncontrolled pain due to complex orthopedic problems in his hip. The pain team at our local children's hospital did not have the response capability for middle of the night screaming - anaesthetists on call hung up on me saying either they were in the middle of a surgery or 'they didn't do pain'. I gave him morphine according to what I thought might help. When I complained about the lack of support from the pain team, I was investigated. They thought I might be trying to harm my son because I had asked to look into a placement for him because I was so exhausted that I desperately thought maybe others could look after him better than me. (He is now 28 and has 24/7 awake bedside nursing care - a level of care they thought one person should provide at home - ie, me). The issue of parents of children with disabilities being investigated for abuse is a real phenomenon that should be examined. I discussed this in my book The Four Walls of My Freedom and I believe the root of suspicion on the part of child protection workers is the belief that our children are a burden - that their life does not have equal worth to that of our able-bodied children. Ergo, we MUST want to harm our children with disabilities if their needs are high. I have worked my entire adult life to address this misconception. Our children with disabilities are precious. Our son is in the hospital right now and we worry every minute about the terrible possibility of life without him. He is adored.

  9. Love this post. I could relate personally until yesterday when someone from my daughters class called cas and the police suspecting abuse. It's the day after now and I'm much more calmer but not happy about it. It's one thing to do have a good day wait for your kids school bus after and the police call you and ask you to come to the school because somebody said something. I will reading your blog helps also. Thank you!


Thanks for sharing!

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