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Parents Who Have Mental Retardation

By: The Arc

How many parents with mental retardation are there in the United States?

Information in this area is scarce. Reasons for this include the fact that many parents who have mental retardation are either not receiving services that would identify them as having mental retardation or are not identified by the service system or program in which they participate. Also, different service agencies use varying definitions of mental retardation.

Deductions can be drawn from a study done by the Oregon Developmental Disabilities Council in 1989. The study identified 358 families in the state of Oregon with parents considered to have an intellectual impairment.* Based on a 1990 Oregon population of 2,853,733, the number of parents with mental retardation would equal .00013 percent of Oregon's general population. If these numbers reflect the general population of the United States, then .00013 percent of the U.S. population of 249,632,692 in 1990 would equal 32,452 parents with mental retardation in the U.S. This number, however, is probably a low estimate, given that many parents who have mental retardation are not identified by the service system. (Population statistics are from the 1990 U.S. census.)

Do parents with mental retardation have the same rights as other parents?

According to United States law, every citizen has the "essential right to conceive and raise one's children" (In re Montgomery, 1984). Yet, parents who have mental retardation and others who have disabilities historically have been denied that right based on the assumption that the child would be "better off" in someone else's care.

Parental rights have often been terminated solely upon the determination that a parent has a mental disability without regard to the parents' actual abilities. However, most parents who have mental retardation are capable of raising and loving their own children (Hayman, 1990).

Does having a parent with mental retardation make the child more likely to have mental retardation?

If the cause of a parent's mental retardation is genetic, then there is an increased risk of their children having mental retardation. Based on research in genetics, two people who do not have mental retardation, but have a history of genetic mental retardation in their families have a slightly increased risk of producing a child with mental retardation. The chances of a person with genetic mental retardation and a person without mental retardation bearing a child with mental retardation is about 20 percent. Two people who have genetic mental retardation have a 42 percent chance of producing a child with mental retardation (D'Souza, 1990). However, it is important to remember that there are thousands of causes of mental retardation and most of them are not genetic.

What effect does having a parent with mental retardation have on the child?

There is no evidence that a parent having mental retardation will have an adverse effect on the child. Like any parent, regardless of disability, different factors can influence how the child develops both physically and emotionally. For example, when parents do not receive needed supports they may not be enabled to provide their child with necessary stimulation in the environment. The parents may over protect the child or may not learn how to give the child adequate affection. These problems sometimes stem from how the parent was treated when he or she was a child. Most of these problems, however, can be overcome by teaching better parenting skills. "Many mentally retarded parents are adequate or better parents, and with appropriate support, many more could be" (Hayman, 1990).

Are people who have mental retardation capable of raising children?

Yes. Many people who have mental retardation need little, if any, help to raise their children. Some people need temporary help with learning how to care for their children's needs. Others need help on an ongoing basis. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and other family members can provide a lot of the help and support these parents may need. Service agencies such as community mental health centers, state-run programs, etc. can fill in the gaps by providing individualized services based on each family's needs.

Parents who are known to have mental retardation are often closely scrutinized by family, friends and various government and social service agencies for any sign or symptom of abuse or neglect to their children. Many parents who have mental retardation feel that they must live in fear of having their children taken away.

In cases where abuse or neglect by a parent with mental retardation are proven, there are usually other circumstances that contribute to the situation. "Many mentally retarded parents are of lower socioeconomic status, and the relationship between socioeconomic status and maltreatment is well documented. Clinical reports indicate that mentally retarded parents can be caring and giving to their children to the point of utter selflessness." (Hayman, 1990.)

What are some of the needs of parents with mental retardation?

The needs of parents with mental retardation are really not that different from the needs of other people. Some parents need help with learning how to care for an infant such as bathing, feeding and diapering. Others may need help with maintaining a job, adequate housing and budgeting. Later, as the child grows, the parent may need to learn how to handle discipline problems. There are a variety of community resources these parents can access to help them in these areas. For instance, local hospitals often offer parenting classes for new parents-to-be, and social service agencies can help with employment and housing. School personnel can help and give suggestions as well, just as they do with any parent.

Why should support be provided for these families?

The Arc's position statement on family support states that: Premature out-of-home placement is frequently the result of a failure to provide adequate supports to help a family remain intact, rather than the result of the individual's disability itself. The Arc believes that in most situations, the natural or adoptive family is the best source of support for a child with mental retardation and an important part of life for most adults with mental retardation. Family and individual support should be offered as needed throughout the life of a person with mental retardation (The Arc, 1992).

The natural family is the best source of love, support and nurturing for any child, this includes the children of parents with mental retardation. Supporting these families with individualized services makes sense because, in the long run, it is usually best for children to remain with their natural parents. Also, it is more cost-effective to society to support these families than to allow the children to become involved in the financially burdensome foster care system.


D'Souza, N., "Genetics and Mental Retardation" in: Whitman, B. and Accardo, P. (1990). When a Parent is Mentally Retarded. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

Hayman, R.L., (1990). "Presumptions of Justice: Law, Politics, and the Mentally Retarded Parent," Harvard Law Review, Vol 103.

In re Montgomery, 311 N.C. 101, 316, S.E.2d 246 (1984).

Oregon Developmental Disabilities Council (ODDC), Family Support Initiative (1989). A Study of the Status of Families in Oregon Where One or Both Parents are Considered Intellectually Impaired. Salem, OR: Author.

The Arc (1992). Position Statements of The Arc. Arlington, TX: Author.

Whitman, B. and Accardo, P. (1990). When a Parent is Mentally Retarded. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc.

* Note: The authors of ODDC's above study chose to use the term "intellectual impairment" instead of mental retardation. For the purposes of this Q&A, the definitions are essentially the same.


Family Support: A Check for Quality. (1993). A checklist for families to use to evaluate the quality of their family support services. Also useful to providers of services to evaluate their own programs. Available in Spanish. The Arc. Single copies free with SASE or $25 per 100.

Contact Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co., Inc. P. O. Box 10624, Baltimore, MD 21285-0624, 1-800-638-3775 for ordering information on the following:

Life in the Community: Case Studies of Organizations Supporting People with Disabilities. (1991). Taylor, S.J., Bogdan, R., & Racino, J.A. (Eds.) Includes chapters on family support, housing and community integration. $29.

Support for Caregiving Families: Enabling Positive Adaptation to Disability. (1989). Singer, G.H.S. & Irvin, L.K. (Eds.). This book covers many family support issues and includes chapters by leaders in the field. Areas covered include: caregiving, stress and support, siblings, self-advocacy, community support, cash assistance and legislation. $39.

When a Parent is Mentally Retarded. (1990). Whitman, B.Y. & Accardo, P.J. (Eds.). This book addresses issues of parenthood for people who have mental retardation. Chapters deal with issues of marriage, foster care and adoption, relationships and training. $24.

Publication of this Q&A was supported in part by Contract Number 25200 under provisions of the Developmental Disabilities Act of 1991 (P.L. 101-496) from the Minnesota Department of Administration, Governor's Planning Council on Developmental Disabilities. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Governor's Planning Council on Developmental Disabilities nor that of the Minnesota Department of Administration.

This fact sheet was prepared with the assistance of The Arc's Program Services for Children and Adults Committee, 1990.

The Arc
National Headquarters
1010 Wayne Ave. Suite 650
Silver Spring, MD 20910
301/565-5342 (fax) (e-mail)


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