Child protection involvement of children of mothers with intellectual disability

Mr Fernando Lima1, A/Prof Melissa O’Donnell1,2, Ms Jenny Bourke1, Ms Brittany Mann1, Prof Gwynnyth  Llewellyn3, Dr Alison Gibberd4, A/Prof Helen Leonard1

1Telethon Kids Institute, Nedlands, Australia, 2University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia, 3University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia, 4University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Children born to parents with intellectual disability have been shown as disproportionally represented in child protection services however with limited population-based research. This study aims to investigate child protection involvement for children born to mothers with intellectual disability and examine changes in risk by age of the child, the child’s disability status, and mother’s mental health and substance use issues.

A cohort of 1,106 children born to a mother with intellectual disability and a comparison group of 9,796 children of mothers without intellectual disability were identified using linked administrative data. Cox regression analyses were conducted to investigate risk of child involvement with child protection services and care placement, stratifying by maternal Aboriginal status.

Children born to a mother with intellectual disability were at higher risk of contact with child protection services (Hazard Ratio: 4.35 (Confidence Interval:3.92-4.83)) and placement in out-of-home care (Hazard Ratio: 6.21 (Confidence Interval:5.19-7.44)). For non-Aboriginal children, the risks of child protection involvement and placement for those born to mothers with intellectual disability were 7 times and 12 times higher than those of mothers without intellectual disability respectively. The risk was lower for Aboriginal children, at 1.7 and 1.9 times, respectively. Infants were at higher risk compared to other age-groups. Maternal mental health and substance use moderated the increased risk found.

Intellectual disability alone is not sufficient justification for removal of children from their parents. The challenge for family services is ensuring that resources and supports are adequate to meet the family’s needs.


A/Prof Helen Leonard is a medically trained epidemiologist and a Principal Research Fellow at the Telethon Kids Institute. The database structures set up and managed by her and her team are unique internationally and include the WA Intellectual Disability Database (IDEA), used in over 30 research projects and accompanying publications.