DFCS Online Policies & Procedures

  DFCS Online Policies & Procedures

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Handbook 3: Assessment Guides
3-11 Assessment of Parental Incapacity
Assessment Guides
3-11 Assessment of Parental Incapacity
Reference Points
When a Child is Determined to be at Risk & Parental Incapacity is Suspected
When Determining the Relationship between the Parent's Incapacity and the Child's Maltreatment
Presenting Information Regarding a Parent's Incapacity to the Court

Reference Points
Effective Date: 03/01/2006
Last Updated: 12/30/2005
 Legal Basis:
Popup Window Welfare Institutions Code (WIC) Section 300(b)
pdf California Department of Social Services (CDSS) Manual of Policies and Procedures (MPP) -Division 31-125
 Non CWS/CMS Forms:
MS Word Authorization for Use and Disclosure of Protected Health Information (SCZ 244)
MS Word Initial Dependency Hearing Report (SC 12)
 CWS/CMS Forms:
bullet Jurisdictional/Dispositional Report
bullet Juvenile Court Petition
bullet Status Review Report


Welfare and Institutions Section 300(b) defines parental incapacity as follows:

The child has suffered, or there is a substantial risk the child will suffer, serious physical harm or illness as a result of the inability of the parent or guardian to provide regular care
for the child due to the parent’s or guardian’s mental illness, developmental disability, or substance abuse. No child shall be found to be a person described by this subdivision soley due to lack of an emergency shelter for the family.

Welfare and Institutions Code 300 concludes with the following statement:

The Legislature further declares that a physical disability, such as blindness or deafness, is no bar to the raising of happy and well-adjusted children and that a court's determination pursuand to this section shall center upon whether a parent's  disability prevents him or her from exercising care and control. 

Assessing parental incapacity involves two components: assessment of the child and assessment of the parent/legal guardian. Of these, the assessment of the child is paramount for, in the absence of demonstrable deleterious affects on the child, the parent’s incapacity may be irrelevant. No matter how severe the incapacity, if the child’s safety is assured by immediate or extended family, friends or other community resources, our Department’s intervention would likely be unwarranted.

In the event a child has been or is at risk of neglect or abuse, the parents’ suspected incapacity must be addressed. In this case, the child’s maltreatment may not be the result of willful conduct by the parent but rather the parent’s incapacity or inability to provide adequate care or access appropriate resources. As defined by the Welfare and Institutions Code, this inability may be the result of a parental developmental disability (i.e., low intelligence), mental illness or substance abuse. See Assessment of Drug/Alcohol Abuse.

Parental incapacity may also take the form of a physical disability, although the Code cautions the SW to use extreme caution in applying this standard. As in all other cases of parental incapacity, harm or risk of harm to the child when the parent is physically disabled must be demonstrated.

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When a Child is Determined to be at Risk & Pratental Incapacity is Suspected  

It may not always be possible to complete an assessment of the suspected parental incapacity prior to detaining the child. However, this assessment must be conducted prior to the Jurisdiction/Disposition hearing and, if parental incapacity is a factor, must be addressed in the Case Plan.

A Social Worker completes an assesssment to determine if a child is at risk and suspects parental incapacity:

  • Interview the parent. If possible, obtain a complete social history. Include queries regarding family medical and psychiatric history.
  • Observe and make note of the parent’s grooming and personal hygiene.
  • Probe the following areas:
    • Developmental Disability:
      • Inquire as to the parent’s educational history including an estimate of grades earned, years of schooling completed and special class or special school enrollment.
      • If the parent was enrolled in special classes or attended special schools, obtain, if possible, the name or type of program(s) and the name and location of the school(s) attended. Ask the parent to sign a release of information for school records. Contact the parent’s school(s) and attempt to obtain the parent’s records. Specifically ask for copies of any psychological reports the school may have on file.
      • NOTE: Documenting, if it exists, a history
        of developmental disability during the parent’s developmental (school age) years may be essential if a mental health expert later attempts to determine whether a diagnosis of developmental disability is appropriate.
      • Inquire as to whether the parent has a history of or is currently a Regional Center client. If so, ask the parent to sign a release of information for Regional Center records.
      • Observe the content of the parent’s communications. Note whether the parent appears to comprehend and follow simple instructions and/or whether the parent appears to have an adequate store of commonly understood information.
      • NOTE: Examples of commonly understood information are: knowledge of the days of the week; the current month and year; or the ages of the parent’s children
    • Mental Illness:
      • Inquire as to the parent’s mental healthhistory, including any psychiatric
        hospitalizations and/or mental health counseling.
      • NOTE: Some individuals may be reluctant to acknowledge a history of psychiatric
        illness. However, if this is suspected, an inquiry as to whether the individual has ever had a “breakdown” or “nervous breakdown” may yield fruitful results. It is sometimes also useful to inquire as to whether another person has questioned the parent’s psychiatric status and, if so, what the person might have told the parent.
      • If the parent acknowledges a history of psychiatric treatment, attempt to obtain the parent’s written consent for release of records and permission to talk with the treatment mental health professional. If successful, contact the treating professional and/or, if the parent was hospitalized, the hospital to obtain the records.
      • Observe the contents of the parent’s communication. Note any bizarre or illogical content. If the parent appears to be attending to stimuli not observably present, ask if the parent is experiencing hallucinations (“hearing voices” or “seeing things”). If the answer is in the affirmative, inquire as to the content of the hallucinations. Pay especial heed to the client’s report of auditory hallucinations. Note if the client perceives that the “voices” are instructing him or her to injure the child.
      • Observe the parent’s demeanor. Watch for a mood inappropriate to the circumstances; i.e., euphoria, unreasonable fear or expressions of hopelessness without seeming cause.
      • Observe the parent’s speech patterns. Note if the parent jumps from topic to topic and is difficult to follow or speaks rapidly, as though pressured.
        • Interview collateral contacts. These may include extended family members, neighbors, the child’s teachers or any other person having significant contact with the child.
        • Inquire as to the collateral’s observations of the parent. Attempt to elicit specific observations of any bizarre or inappropriate behavior or clear examples of incomprehension by the parent of the day-to-day needs of the child.
        • Ask the collateral whether (s)he has seen contact between parent and child and, if so, to describe his/her observations of said contacts.
        • If possible, record the collateral's observations verbati
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When Determining the Relationship between the Parent's Incapacity and the Child's Maltreatment  

A social worker completes an assessment to determine the relationship between the parent's incapacity and the child's treatment:

  • Interview the parent.  If the child has been injured, inquire as to whether the parent is aware of the injuries. If so: 
    • Ask how the injuries were incurred.  Note any bizarre explanations such as extra-terrestrial or divine interveniton.
    • If the  parent acknowledges causing the injury, ask the reason for the parents abusive behavior.
    • Note any bizarre responses such as the parent “beat the devil” out of the child or “God instructed” the parent. Note any responses indicating the parent does not have an understanding of reasonable, age-appropriate behavioral expectations.
  • If the parent acknowledged auditory hallucinations [Refer to previous section: Mental Illness]:
    • ask whether the “voices” instructed the parent to
      strike or otherwise abuse the child
    • ask if the parent is aware of the source of the
      “voice” and determine if the parent believes the child to be the source.
  • If the child has been neglected, inquire as to the parent’s understanding of the child’s day-to-day needs and as to the parent’s expectations of the child.
    • Note any responses suggesting grossly inappropriate expectations such as the parent’s belief that a two-year-old may provide care for an infant or that an infant needs only water to survive.
    • NOTE: Any statement, by the parent
      or other source, should be recorded
      verbatim for later use as evidence in
  • Interview the child. Ascertain how the child views the parent, i.e., whether the child perceives the parent to be odd or inappropriate, is fearful of the parent or views the parent as childlike.
    • NOTE: Young children living with an incapacitated
      parent have limited experiences and may therefore see nothing inappropriate in their parent’s behavior or manner. The child may however, unwittingly describe highly inappropriate or even dangerous behavior on the part of the parent if the child’s description of day-to-day life at home is elicited.
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Presenting Information Regarding Parent's Incapacity to the Court  

If sufficient information is available, this information may be presented in the Detention Report. Often, however, the child is detained in an emergency situation and there is insufficient time to develop evidence of parental incapacity. Whether the information is presented in the Detention Report or newly obtained, a detailed description of the evidence suggesting parental incapacity must appear in the Jurisdiction/Disposition Court Report. See Writing the Detention Report and Writing the Jurisdiction/Disposition Report.

A social worker presents information regarding the parent's incapacity to the Court:

  • Describe the harm, or potential harm, to the child. 
  • Describe the parent's incapacity.
    • Do not use diagnostic labels in rendering this description. Describe behavior, mannerisms and speech content that point to incapacity.
    • NOTE: For example, do not describe the parent as “paranoid” or “depressed.” The court has not recognized the SW as qualified to provide psychiatric diagnoses, regardless of whether the social worker possesses a mental health license. Instead, describe the behavior or quote the language used by the parent that led the social worker to the conclusion the parent is mentally ill or developmentally disabled.
    • If the parent is a Regional Center client, cite that information. If Regional Center reports are available, refer to them (including IQ scores) in the report and attach them to the court report. Provide the name, address, phone number and professional credential of the preparer of the report.
    • If the social worker has obtained information from the parent’s treating mental health professional, provide that information, including the diagnosis, if there is one. State the name, address and telephone number of the professional who provided the information.
    • If the parent has provided consent for the CSW to obtain psychiatric hospital records, obtain the hospital admitting and discharge summaries, psychiatric or psychological reports and discharge recommendations and attach them to the court report. Note in the court report whether the parent complied with the discharge instructions, especially with respect to follow-up psychiatric care.
    • Cite descriptions provided by other collateral sources that support the notion that the parent is incapacitated. Provide the names, addresses and phone numbers of all such witnesses.
    • Describe the effect the parent’s disability has had on the child. For example, if the parent believes the child must only be fed water, detail the child’s weight and general health and describe how any problems may be attributed to an inadequate diet.
    • Whenever possible, elicit expert opinion (such as that of the child’s physician) to support the position that the child has suffered as a result of the parent’s disability. If an expert is cited, provide the expert’s name, address, phone and professional credentials.
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