Ideas to Support Children and Families Impacted by Abuse, Trauma and Divorce

Brief Overview

  • The National Education Association (NEA) recognizes that childhood experiences related to domestic abuse, trauma or divorce affect education. This article includes recommendations for teachers, family members or other adults who might advocate for a student who needs more help due to challenging life circumstances.
  • Researchers agree that a trauma-sensitive approach to special education can be critical and urge schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students.
  • After a divorce, both parents participate in educational decisions unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes a parent’s rights. This article includes tips for navigating those circumstances. A parenting plan that designates a primary parent for school interactions is one idea.
  • Schools can accommodate survivors of domestic abuse to help them participate safely in the special education process for their children. Alternative meeting spaces are among ideas further described below.

Full Article:

Students who experience trauma often have a rough time staying emotionally stable and keeping their behavior on track for learning at school. Research about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lists many childhood conditions that impact a person’s lifelong health and access to opportunities. High on the list are trauma from domestic abuse and divorce. For many families, complex trauma includes both.

A child’s response to trauma may look like disobedience or lack of motivation. A family member or teacher might notice that a child is regressing. A student may have delays in social communication or emotional regulation–skills schools teach in an emerging area of education called Social Emotional Learning. Some children survive severe distress but don’t demonstrate obvious changes in behavior or disrupt the classroom. In all cases, figuring out what’s happened and how to help requires a thoughtful, individualized process.

A family member, school employee or any concerned adult can respond by seeking an evaluation to determine whether the student has a disability and qualifies for services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan.

Note: Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects individuals with a disabling condition that impact a “major life activity.” An article on PAVE’s website further describes Section 504 and the differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP. PAVE also provides comprehensive articles and on-demand webinars about special education process, the IDEA, evaluation, and other topics listed under Learning in School at wapave.org.

A behavioral or emotional disability that significantly impacts access to learning can qualify a student for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if the student demonstrates a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). Among the IDEA’s 14 qualifying categories of disability are Emotional Disturbance, which captures a variety of behavioral health conditions, and Other Health Impairment, which sometimes captures conditions related to attention deficit, anxiety or depression. A child who isn’t found to have a qualifying disability might benefit from a behavior support plan or counseling services at school. 

Supporting and educating students with trauma histories has become a priority for the National Education Association (NEA), with a specific focus on students who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, sexual abuse and related traumas.

The problems are widespread: More than half of women who experience domestic violence have children younger than 12, and data indicate that nearly half of those children witnessed the abuse.

Response to a child’s symptoms may be complicated by cultural considerations: Some cultures may be more accepting of abuse, less trusting of authorities or afraid of the fallout within the community. An agency in Washington that helps when multicultural issues create barriers is Open Doors for Multicultural Families.

Best Practice Strategies to Help

On its website, the NEA offers an article: Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization. The article provides strategies to support traumatized students. Here is a summary of some points:

  • Provide structure, a sense of security and a safety plan: “Children who experience abuse often yearn for structure and predictability.”
  • Help students understand available support and the teacher’s role as a mandated reporter: “The larger the number of people available to listen to a student, the more likely that student is to disclose abuse.”
  • Validate and reassure the student: “Provide non-judgmental, validating statements if a student discloses information. Sample statements include That must have been scary or It must be difficult to see that happening.”
  • Identify triggers of anxiety or challenging behavior: “…be prepared for negative emotions and behaviors from the student in response to triggers.”
  • Use a daily Check In to provide a solid foundation for relationship building: “It can be helpful to use pictures or a rating scale to help students identify and label their emotional states.”
  • Directly teach problem solving skills: “Be honest with students about how you’re feeling and talk through your actions in response to challenging situations.”

Domestic Abuse is Common

Understanding the nature and prevalence of domestic abuse can grow compassion, combat stigma and promote shared problem-solving. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), defines domestic violence as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”

Acts of domestic violence can be physical, sexual, threatening, emotional or psychological.  Statistically, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience some form of domestic violence; its prevalence is noted among all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.

How to Notice Something is Wrong

When domestic abuse impacts a child’s access to education, figuring out how to help requires thoughtful consideration. The NEA describes specific characteristics of children who have experienced trauma and how their ability to function is compromised. Here is a summary from NEA’s article:

Regulation

  • Children may find it hard to explain their emotional reactions to situations and events.
  • They may appear inattentive or hyperactive—or fluctuate between both.
  • Loud or busy activities can trigger a confusing reaction: a child might lose control about something that is usually a favorite.

Social Skills

  • Children may have “disordered social skills,” playing inappropriately or lacking typical boundaries.
  • They may withdraw socially or try to control situations in ways that seem rude or look like bullying.
  • They might develop “friendships” based on negativity and be unable to develop high-quality, appropriate friends.

Cognitive Function

  • Children impacted by trauma may be mentally overwhelmed and struggle to follow directions or shift from one activity to another, even with prompting. (Adults may mislabel these cognitive inabilities as deliberate or defiant behaviors.)
  • Children may overly depend on others but struggle to ask for help.
  • An impaired working memory can make it difficult for the child to start or finish a task, pay attention and/or concentrate.

Evaluate with Trauma in Mind

The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides a downloadable article called Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process. The article provides suggestions for making the evaluation process trauma sensitive and includes this statement:

“By becoming aware that violence may be at the heart of many of the child’s learning and behavioral difficulties, school personnel may be able to mitigate much of the lasting impact of trauma.”

The federation urges schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students and encourages use of the Functional Behavioral Assessment tool and a framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS):

“Self-regulation describes the ability of a child to ‘put the brakes on’ in times of emotional stress. Traumatized children are hyper-aroused; they view their world as dangerous and unpredictable and they are prepared to react in a moment’s notice, usually in inappropriate (and possibly unsafe) ways…IEP Team Meeting members can go a long way towards ameliorating this hyper-arousal by asking for Functional Behavioral Assessments to ascertain the reason for the inappropriate reactions as well as ways to replace the behaviors with better coping skills and strategies.”

A trauma-informed approach at school meetings can help the team figure out why unexpected behaviors happen or why academic progress seems so hard to achieve. Promoting healthy relationships by designing intentional time with trusted adults and developing a creative strategy for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at school are strategies the team can discuss. A trauma-informed approach, the federation contends, “encourages educators to ask, What happened to you? instead of What’s wrong with you?

When Divorce Complicates Work with the School

Another domestic issue that sometimes complicates circumstances for families navigating special education is divorce. The US Department of Education stresses that parents or legal guardians are decision-makers for their children. Whether parents are married or separated, they both are equal decision-makers in special education process unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes that right.

A parenting plan can be written with specific instructions about which parent is the educational decision maker.

The school needs a copy of the parenting plan in order to follow it. Without a plan in place, either parent who shares joint legal custody can sign an educational document that requires parental consent, even if the student lives full time with only one parent. Parental rights include access to records and educational information about the student. A non-custodial parent has the right to be informed of meetings and attend meetings.

Parents with joint custody who share parenting decisions may want to draft an agreement with the school to specify how the child’s time is divided and which parent is responsible for specific days, activities or meetings.

Schools Can Offer Safe Space

If one partner has been abused and there is no restraining order to prevent the non-custodial parent from attending school meetings, schools can accommodate the domestic abuse survivor by offering a separate meeting in a different space, at a separate time.

If a parent is bound by a restraining order, the IEP team will need to determine whether the order limits access to the school building and whether the order specifies that the parent has lost rights under the IDEA. If the order limits building access, but does not limit IDEA rights, then that parent has the right to attend a meeting in another space or by phone. A restraining order might include “no contact” with the child, and the meeting must ensure that the child’s safe distance from the parent is protected.  

Visit the following websites for additional information:

Access Rights of Parents of Students Eligible for Special Education (Washington State)

Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization.

In the Best Interests of the Child: Individualized Education Program (IEP) Meetings When Parents Are In Conflict (PDF)

Divorce: It Can Complicate Children’s Special Education Issues

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process (PDF)

Trauma Informed Schools Resources (OSPI)

Parents with Disabilities Have Rights

Brief overview:

  • For nearly 100 years, parents with disabilities have experienced fewer rights than their non-disabled peers.
  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect parents and prospective parents with disabilities from unlawful discrimination in the administration of child welfare programs, activities, and services.
  • Despite legal protections, parents with disabilities still are referred to child welfare services and permanently separated from their children at disproportionately high rates.
  • Parents who believe they have experienced discrimination may file an ADA complaint online, by mail, or by fax. Another option is to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Read on for details about how and where complaints are filed.

Full Article

In 1923, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) established parental rights, but four years later parents with disabilities were denied those protections. In Buck v. Bell, May 2, 1927, SCOTUS ruled that persons with disabilities do not have fundamental rights to make private decisions regarding family life. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 attempted to correct some disparities, but parents with disabilities still have their children removed from their homes at disproportionate rates.

Here are a few Facts About Disability Rights for Parents, compiled by the National Council on Disability and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation:

  • In the United States, 4.1 million parents have disabilities.
  • 1 in 10 children have a parent with a disability.
  • 5.6 million Americans live with paralysis from stroke, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, neurofibromatosis, cerebral palsy, post-polio syndrome or other issues.
  • 35 states include disability as grounds for termination of parental rights.
  • Two-thirds of dependency statutes allow courts to determine a parent unfit, based on disability.
  • In every state, disability of the parent can be included in determining the best interest of the child.
  • The District of Columbia, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Carolina allow physical disability as the sole grounds for terminating parental rights, without evidence of abuse or neglect.

The ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools and transportation. The federal law, which is upheld by the Office for Civil Rights, covers all public and private places that are open to the general public. Under the ADA, people with disabilities have the right to equitable access. Equity doesn’t mean equal: It means that accommodations are provided to ensure access to something that everyone else has access to.

In 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) was signed into law. The ADAAA made significant changes to the definition of disability. The ADA is organized in sections called “Titles,” and the ADAAA changes applied to three Titles of the ADA:

  • Title I: Covers employment practices of private employers with 15 or more employees, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor unions, agents of the employer and joint management labor committees
  • Title II: Covers programs and activities of state and local government entities, including child welfare agencies and court systems
  • Title III: Covers private entities that are considered places of public accommodation

Equitable parenting opportunities are a Civil Right

Title II of the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protect parents and prospective parents with disabilities from unlawful discrimination in the administration of child welfare programs, activities, and services. Section 504 also protects students with disabilities, and PAVE has an article about that.

The goal of the ADA and Section 504 as it applies to parents and prospective parents is to ensure equitable access to parenting opportunities.  Also, these Civil Rights laws recognize that separation of parents from their children can result in long-term negative outcomes. The ADA requires child welfare agencies to:

  • Give a fair chance to parents with disabilities so they can take part in programs, services, or activities. 
  • Provide help to make sure people with disabilities understand what is being said or done.
  • Prevent barriers that make programs, activities or services hard to access because of disability.

Title II of the ADA and Section 504 also protect “companions”—people who help individuals involved in the child welfare system. A companion may include any family member, friend, or associate of the person who is seeking or receives child welfare services. For example, if a helper person is deaf, the child welfare agency provides appropriate auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication.

Discrimination leads to family separation

According to a comprehensive 2012 report from the National Council on Disability (NCD), parents with disabilities are often inappropriately referred to child welfare services. Once involved, these agencies permanently separate families impacted by disability at disproportionately high rates.

According to the report, discrimination most commonly involves parents with intellectual and psychiatric disabilities. Parents who are blind or deaf also report significant discrimination in the custody process, as do parents with other physical disabilities. Individuals with disabilities seeking to become foster or adoptive parents encounter bias and barriers to foster care and adoption placements. The NCD linked the discrimination to stereotypes and speculation about parenting ability rather than evidence of problems in the home. The agency found a lack of individualized assessments and that many families weren’t receiving needed services.

The ADA and Section 504 provide Civil Rights protections against retaliation or coercion for anyone who exercises anti-discrimination rights. ADA complaints can be filed online, by mail, or by fax.

To file an ADA complaint online:

Americans with Disabilities Act Discrimination Online Complaint Form | (en Español)
Instructions for submitting attachments are on the form.

To file an ADA complaint by mail, send the completed ADA complaint form to:

US Department of Justice 
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Civil Rights Division 
Disability Rights Section – 1425 NYAV
Washington, D.C. 20530

To file an ADA complaint by facsimile, fax the completed ADA complaint form to: (202) 307-1197

Individuals also may file complaints with the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For instructions to file in English or other languages, go to How to File a Civil Rights Complaint.

Always save a copy of the complaint and all original documents.

For more information about the ADA and Section 504, call the Department of Justice ADA information line: 800-514-0301 or 800-514-0383 (TDD), or access the ADA website.

Visit the following websites for additional information:

Parenting with a Disability: Know Your Rights Toolkit

Protection from Discrimination in Child Welfare Activities

Children’s Bureau – An Office of the Administration for Children and Families

Rocking the Cradle: Ensuring the Rights of Parents with Disabilities and Their Children

Parental Disability and Child Welfare in the Native American Community

Protecting the Rights of Parents and Prospective Parents with Disabilities