Taking Time to Learn About Families & Caregivers

What They Need from You

Take time to learn about families and caregivers of children with disabilities. It can go a long way toward increasing their trust and ability to help the investigation.

Parents of children with disabilities said they wish law enforcement staff and child advocates would directly tell them:

  • how the investigation works
  • who their contact person will be
  • about their next steps
  • the case status
  • what to expect (including how long something might take)

Parents don’t just want to know these facts. They also want to know that their child will be safe and taken care of during the process. They want to know that you are telling the truth, and need you to understand how difficult this is for the family.

They also want you to tell them what could happen in the future for their child and family. And, at some point, they want to know if and how their children and families can heal.

What Parents Want You to Know About Their Child

Parents of children with disabilities told us they wanted criminal justice staff and advocates to understand the following things about all children with disabilities:

Disability is one part of a child’s characteristics. Rather than focusing  on the disability, just treat their child as you would any other child. However, unlike other children, a child with a disability may need an interpreter, or be uneasy in closed spaces, or need to be away from flashing lights. Get information so the child is as comfortable as possible during your interactions.

Respect the child's boundaries as you would any other child.

Know that while children with disabilities are the most vulnerable children to abuse, they are also tough kids.

Children with disabilities can be good witnesses. They may, however, need assistance in sharing what happened to the police or a jury. Find out where to get expertise to interview a child or youth with a disability (whether that child is the victim or perpetrator).

Find a way to communicate with this child. Work around whatever issue is blocking your efforts to get the information you need. Through no fault of their own, this child is in the system, and it’s a confusing maze.

Stresses on Families

Even without the issue of abuse, families of children with significant disabilities live with stress, every day.

  • Never enough time or energy. Parents may need to work to keep health insurance for their child, which makes it hard to get to medical and other appointments for speech therapy, physical therapy, school meetings, doctor’s appointments, and others. They may not have the time and energy to meet the needs of other children in the house, who then may feel neglected. They may not be able to keep up with friends and family.
  • Not enough money. Families often have medical bills they cannot pay, are late on their house payments or car payments, are at risk of losing their jobs for missing too many days to take care of their child.
  • Lack of experience. Families may lack information about how to respond to their child’s medical needs, behaviors, and communications.
  • Social stigma. In public, people may stare at their child, avoid looking at their child, or ask awkward or intrusive questions. Children and adults with disabilities are still dismissed and shamed in our culture.
  • Education and service stress. Families may have to fight to get school supports or disability services for their children.
  • Not enough support. Parents of children with significant disabilities may be chronically tired, worn out, and have few social or practical resources.
  • Fear of future. Parents commonly worry about what the future will bring for their child with a disability.
  • Guillt. Parents often feel guilty about the fact that their child has a disability, about their child’s struggles, and about their difficulties in juggling all of the above issues.

Abuse adds one more layer to all these existing stressors.

Helping Families So They Can Help Their Children

When their child is abused, everything in the child’s world and the family’s world can seem out of control.

They are suddenly working with people and agencies they don’t know anything about. One of the parents or another family member may have been removed from the house. The child may have been taken to emergency shelter.

When everything is in chaos, having even little things to control can help, such as being able to say where in the house to meet, or the best time of day to talk to the child.

Be flexible about when to meet. Families and caregivers are probably already juggling multiple service providers.

Give non-abusing caregivers information about what is happening, what is going to happen, who can give them information, and how much time things will take.

Provide referrals to trauma-informed counseling and support services.

Build trust by learning about how to provide services that are sensitive to how families and children are impacted by trauma.

(The material in this section was adapted in part from SAFE, Chadwick Center for Children and Families, and was also compiled from personal communications with Mikey Betancourt, Executive Director, Children’s Alliance of South Texas – A Child Advocacy Center; Laura Buckner, training consultant and founding partner of the Institute for Person-Centered Practices, Texas Center for Disability Studies; Tim Cromie, Sergeant Detective, Dickinson Police Department; Lindsey Jordan, LMSW, Children's Advocacy Centers of Texas;  Lisa Saucedo, Executive Director, CASA of El Paso, Inc.; and Dr. David Scott, University of Texas at Tyler, Department of Social Sciences. )