HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [10.03 pm]: I rise tonight to speak about parents with intellectual disability and their interaction with our child protection system. A number of individual matters have come to my attention over recent years, and I will indicate and comment on some disturbing trends. Parents with intellectual disability are treated unfairly within our child protection system. This issue has occurred across successive governments, so I certainly am not trying to point the finger at any particular government—it is a system-wide concern.
I will talk about some of the more recent cases that have come to my attention. I am aware of a mother who is deeply committed and attached to her babies, both of whom were taken into care soon after birth. Despite knowing she had an intellectual disability, she was not in any way linked to any sort of disability services nor provided with any sort of tailored parenting supports. I know of a couple who planned the birth of a desperately wanted and dearly loved child who was taken soon after birth, despite the involvement and positive support of other service providers. A family had their babies taken into care due to concerns around their mother’s disability without any effort to undertake assessments to determine particular needs, strengths or opportunities, nor to provide access to specific supports related to her disability. A very welcome move to reunify parents with their child was not then supported by comprehensive reunification plans that would take into account the specific needs of those parents with disability.
The stories about the loss of these loved children are incredibly distressing and very heartbreaking. I need to point out that these are parents who love their children every bit as much as those of us in this place who are parents do. It goes without saying that the best interests of the child should always be paramount in all child protection matters. I am sure that everyone here would agree with that. However, it is absolutely vital that, along with that, parents with disability are treated fairly. There is significant evidence from across Australia that parents with intellectual disability have their children taken into care at far higher rates than other parents do simply because their disability is assumed to be a risk to children. That was noted by the Victorian Public Advocate in the report “Rebuilding the village: Supporting families where a parent has a disability”. However, to be very clear, there is no credible evidence to support this assumption. There is no evidence that demonstrates that these parents present a greater risk to their children than do other parents. As noted by the National Child Protection Clearinghouse in its key issues report on this subject, the diagnosis of intellectual disability is a very poor indicator for risk of child abuse and neglect. A range of reports from other jurisdictions have identified a need for work on how the child protection system can better accommodate the needs of these parents so that their children are provided with the best care and protection. I want to see this also happen in Western Australia.
The report of 2015 that I mentioned before by the Victorian Public Advocate identified that the treatment of parents with intellectual disability is a significant issue. It noted also that these parents should not continue to be treated unfairly by our child protection system. In that report the advocate called for a range of reforms, including improved data collection—I will get to that in a moment—legislative changes to make it clear that disability in and of itself should never be considered a barrier to effective parenting; adoption of guidelines to assess and work with a parent with disability; provision of advocacy services; and reform of our court processes. A report by the New South Wales Parliament last year found that existing parenting supports simply are not making the grade. They are not meeting the needs of parents with disability. The parenting information and resources, unfortunately, are very often being provided in a way that is not accessible to parents with disability, which unfairly disadvantages them when they are trying to deal with the child protection system. Echoing the recommendations of the Victorian Public Advocate, the New South Wales report highlighted the importance of making sure we assess each case individually, with consideration of not only risk factors but also protective factors. It called also for parenting courses to be adapted for parents with disability, as well as disability awareness training for child protection staff.
We know that the evidence clearly shows that, when possible, it is best for children to live with their families; that is always the optimal situation. We also know that there are nowhere near enough foster carers, so we need to ensure that we remove children from their families only when it is absolutely necessary. It is critical that we ensure that these decisions are not made on false assumptions, prejudices, a lack of understanding or, even worse, as a result of a lack of specialised supports being made available.
Last year I asked a question in this place about the number of parents with intellectual disability who were currently in the Western Australian child protection system. According to the response provided, this information is not currently captured by the Department of Communities. The fact that the department was unable to advise how many parents fell into this cohort worries me. If they are not being identified, how do we know whether these families are receiving support appropriate to their particular needs? Parents with intellectual disability are a particularly vulnerable cohort when dealing with our child protection system and I am concerned that, given the lack of advocacy that is available to parents more broadly, this cohort can too easily fall through the gaps in the system. I am really worried that families, including children, are being left with the trauma of child removal when this may not be necessary.
I am not sure what work, if any, has already been undertaken on these issues in WA, although from stories that keep coming through to my office, it seems clear that there is a severe lack of support for these parents. I recognise that the Minister for Child Protection is a thoughtful woman; she is a minister who I respect, and I have written to her to raise this issue. I really encourage the minister to consider taking up this issue. If she does, I hope that members will support her in this important work. It is about not only the rights of people with a disability, their children and their families, but also realising that a socially just, accessible and inclusive community recognises and respects the contributions and needs of people with disability, and that people with intellectual disability can be wonderful parents and can create incredibly supportive and loving families. Ultimately, that is what we want for all our children. That is what we should be striving for as a community. It is really important for people to take an evidence-based approach, to check any prejudices they might have at the door, and to look at the sorts of supports that are being offered in other states to see whether we can do the same things here.