A society that cuts its parents adrift

My mother is not known for her left-wing political correctness
or a passionate sense of injustice, but both seem to have been
fanned from some fading embers as she thrust into my hands an
article torn from the Daily Mail and said: “It’s so cruel! Can’t
you write a letter or something?” The report told the story of a
couple described as having low IQs whose children were taken into
care on the basis that their parents were “too slow” to care for

The story left me feeling disturbed. I thought first about me
and my mother 55 years ago, when doctors told her that I had an
incurable physical condition from which I would probably soon die.
They told both my parents that nurses could care for me better than
they could. They said I would be safer alone in a hospital cot than
in their loving arms. The long-lasting harm done to me and my
family by this separation has never been assessed, measured,
recorded or recompensed. It is barely understood. There is a
primordial bond between children and their birth parents which we
break at our peril. Perhaps her still-remembered pain was the
fading ember fanned by the story.

Then there is the question of the level of scrutiny and
judgement laid upon people with learning difficulties, based on a
prejudice which is not applied to others. Competence is as much to
do with self-confidence as it is to do with levels of skill. When I
took my driving test and sat next to the silent and inscrutable
examiner, complete with his clipboard, I can remember how my heart
raced, my sense of myself as a good driver shrivelled and the
thought of three-point turns and emergency stops seemed terrifying.
Despite having driven for years, I could barely remember how to get
the key into the ignition. Few of us are at our best when called to
prove ourselves to people who do not appear to believe in us. It
seems that people with learning difficulties live almost entirely
in a world of people who do not believe in them and who,
hypocritically, demand standards of them which many people without
such labels would never achieve. I am never surprised when such
victims finally hit out at people in authority who have the power
to take from them everything they hold dear.

And parenting – whoever said it is a job for just one or two
people, alone in a house with no support and a world waiting to
judge us when it all goes pear-shaped? Because of economic
pressures, most families must be supplemented by services and paid
or unpaid carers – extended schools and play schemes, grandparents,
child minders and nannies – in order to manage. Working-class
families, as highlighted by the Daily Mail, who cannot afford to
buy in their support systems, sometimes cannot cope in this
climate. Forcibly removing children from such under-resourced
families to be placed with better-resourced families is punishing
people for their inequality, and does not address the real

Two things that can help families in need are money and support
– real support based on respect and compassion. People with
learning difficulties have been fighting for both in the form of
direct payments to buy in practical assistance and person-centred
planning. This mobilises the natural relationships in the community
to build circles of support and empowerment around vulnerable
people. These principles are recommended in the government’s
Valuing People strategy for people with learning difficulties. They
seem to have been forgotten in this debate.

But perhaps the bigger question concerns the change in society
which is making the raising of children more difficult and lonelier
for everyone. Perhaps the struggles of this family to stay together
is a timely reminder that parenting is a relationship, not a job,
and that resources are best put to supporting that relationship
rather than trying to replace it. I guess my mother knew this.


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