Childhood Maltreatment among Children with Disabilities

A mother holding her young son

Children with disabilities may be at higher risk for abuse or neglect than children without disabilities. There are steps that parents can take to protect children with disabilities from abuse or neglect.

What We Know About Disability and Maltreatment

  • Parents can more easily become stressed with the demands placed on them by parenting a child with a disability.
  • Kids with behavior problems, like, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or other conduct problems, may be more likely to experience physical abuse because parents can become frustrated by the child’s difficult behavior and respond harshly.
  • Kids who are less able to do things independently rely more on adults for their care. These children may be more likely to be sexually abused or neglected by adults.
  • Abusers may take advantage of kids who have problems speaking, hearing or who don’t understand social situations very well. These children may be more likely to experience sexual abuse.

What Can You Do?

Safe stable nurturing relationships between parents and children and between parents and other adults are an important way to protect your child from harm.

Be Informed:

Parents can prevent abuse and neglect of children:

  • Know the signs of possible abuse, such as
    • Sudden changes in, or unusual behavior
    • Cuts and bruises
    • Broken bones (not due to a medical condition)
    • Burns
    • Complaints about painful genitals
  • Know the signs of possible neglect, such as
    • Constant hunger or thirst (not due to a medical condition)
    • Dirty hair or skin
    • Chronic diaper rash (not due to a medical condition)
  • Know where your child is and what he or she is doing when he or she is not at home.
  • Get to know the people who take care of your child. Only leave your child with someone you know and who can take care of your child in a place where your child will be safe from harm and danger.
  • Know that your child’s school must treat your child with dignity. Your child should not be punished by being mistreated, restrained, or secluded.
  • Take steps to make sure your house is a safe place for your child so he or she will not get injured.
  • Talk to your child about behavior and situations that are safe and not safe.
  • Identify and remind your child of safe adults that he or she can turn to. Role playing and practicing how to find a safe adult can help young children learn where to go.
If you think your child has been abused or neglected you can:
Take care of yourself:

Being a parent is the hardest job you will ever love. It is easy to become overwhelmed, especially if you have a child who has a disability or other special health care needs.

Here are some things to remember when parenting gets stressful or difficult:

  • Be realistic about what your child can and cannot do.
  • If you are frustrated, give yourself a time-out to calm down and refocus!
  • Ask people who you trust to help you.
  • Focus on the positive.
  • Make time for yourself.
  • Talk to a healthcare professional like your doctor or a therapist if you don’t know how to handle your child’s behavior.


There are many resources to help parents be the best parents they can be and to provide a safe and nurturing world for children.

For Children
For Parents and other Caregivers
For Health Professionals
State Laws about Reporting Child Abuse and Neglect

Scientific Articles

The following bibliography includes a selection of articles related to child disability and child abuse and neglect. This list is not exhaustive.

American Academy of Pediatrics: Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect and Committee on Children With Disabilities. (2001). Assessment of maltreatment of children with disabilities. Pediatrics, 108(2), 508-512.

Fisher, M. H., Hodapp, R. M., & Dykens, E. M. (2008). Child abuse among children with disabilities: what we know and what we need to know. International Review of Research in Mental Retardation, 35, 251-289.

Govindshenoy, M. (2007). Abuse of the disabled child: a systematic review of population-based studies. Child Care Health and Development, 33(5), 552-558.

Hibbard, R. A., & Desch, L. W. (2007). Maltreatment of children with disabilities. Pediatrics, 119(5), 1018-1025.

Horner-Johnson, W., & Drum, C. (2006). Prevalence of maltreatment of people with intellectual disabilities: A review of recently published research. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 12(1), 57-69.

Jaudes, P. K., & Mackey-Bilaver, L. (2008). Do chronic conditions increase young children’s risk of being maltreated? Child Abuse & Neglect, 32(7), 671-681.

Kendall-Tackett, K., Lyon, T., Taliaferro, G., & Little, L. (2005). Why child maltreatment researchers should include children’s disability status in their maltreatment studies. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(2), 147-151.

Leeb, R. T., Bitsko, R. H., Merrick, M. T., & Armour, B. S. (2012). Does childhood disability increase risk for child abuse and neglect? Journal of Mental Health Research in Intellectual Disabilites, 5, 4-31.

Lightfoot, E., Hill, K., & LaLiberte, T. (2010). The inclusion of disability as a condition for termination of parental rights. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34(12), 927-934.

Seagull, E. A., & Scheurer, S. L. (1986). Neglected and abused children of mentally retarded parents. Child Abuse & Neglect, 10(4), 493-500.

Spencer, N., Devereux, E., Wallace, A., Sundrum, R., Shenoy, M., Bacchus, C., & Logan, S. (2005). Disabling conditions and registration for child abuse and neglect: a population-based study. Pediatrics, 116(3), 609-613.

Stith, S. M., Liu, T., Davies, C., Boykin, E. L., Alder, M. C., Harris, J. M., Som, A., McPherson, M., & Dees, J. E. M. E. G. (2009). Risk factors in child maltreatment: A meta-analytic review of the literature. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 13-29.

Sullivan, P., & Knutson, J. F. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(10), 1257-1273.

Swain, P., & Cameron, N. (2003). Good enough parenting: parental disability and child protection. Disability and Society, 18(2), 165-177.

Watkins, C. (1995). Beyond status: The Americans with disabilities act and the parental rights of people labeled developmentally disabled or mentally retarded. California Law Review, 83(6), 1415-1475.