Clifton Park: assessment centre for parents with learning disabilities

Number 12 Clifton Park looks like any of the 18th century houses in the Bristol suburb, but its grand entrance conceals its unique function. Clifton Park is a residential family assessment centre not only for parents with learning disabilities, but also for their children. It is the only one of its kind in the South West.

Run by Symbol Family Support Services in collaboration with learning disabilities charity Brandon Trust, Clifton Park opened its doors last December. It is Symbol’s third residential family assessment centre for parents with learning disabilities the two others are located in Kent.

Clifton Park was needed, according to Symbol managing director Tessa Duffy, because the region lacked the specialist, independent provision to assess the parenting skills of learning disabled parents. Families from the South West were travelling to Symbol’s Kent centres to complete the court-ordered assessments, she says. This led to disruption to their own and their children’s lives.

“Local authorities and primary care trusts in the South West were writing strategies to support parents with learning difficulties but didn’t have the services to deliver them so we thought we would open our own,” she says.


Now Symbol receives referrals to Clifton Park from legal advocates, local authorities in the South West, Wales and the Midlands. Most referrals – 70% – come from councils undertaking care proceedings.

Of the preliminary assessments that Symbol conducts on referred families, only 55% of parents are eligible for a residential assessment placement because a “successful outcome” for their child may be achieved. “The paramount consideration is the child’s needs,” Duffy says. “What we consider to be a successful outcome is what is right for the child, many of whom also have special needs.”

The centre’s staff come from learning disability backgrounds and believe in parents with learning disabilities having a right to parent their children, if they can.

Learning disabilities

Parents with learning disabilities and their children, of any age, move into Clifton Park for 12 or 16 weeks and are assessed 24 hours a day by a team including social workers and specialist behavioural therapists. Of the families who go through a residential assessment, 70% pass it and leave with their children and a care plan to support them. Some realise they wish to relinquish their children to adoption or care.

Up to eight families can live in the three-storey house, which has two floors dedicated to residential accommodation. Another floor is used for administration tasks by Symbol staff – including a room where live recordings of families filmed in a dedicated assessment room can be viewed. The basement contains two garden flats for families once they have passed their assessment if they have nowhere else to go.

“Ideally we wouldn’t bring parents into a residential setting and instead work with them in their own homes,” says Duffy. “But by the time we come into contact with them they have already been separated from their children by the courts.”

Home ambience

This is why, she adds, great care is taken to ensure the house looks and feels like a home for all concerned. In one of its two bright and airy kitchens plastic beakers and plates lie drying on the draining board and a green toy snail sits on the table. On the wall is a chart detailing, through drawings, all the separate tasks one father needs to do with his baby. In one of the two living rooms two babies bounce in baby chairs as a scattering of toys litter the floor as parents chat on a sofa.

Sarah Thornell is Clifton Park’s manager and a trained and registered learning disability nurse. She says it is important that staff only assist and not take over from parents while they are being assessed. As the assessment progresses, particular targets are set and daily feedback is given to parents on how they are doing.

“For the first two weeks the parents are supported throughout the day and night with their child,” Thornell says. “We document where the parent is at and look at their routines. Then we put together a support plan around what areas they need help with.”

From having a worker going through a structured task – such as bathing a child – with a parent and giving them feedback parents learn what is really involved in raising their child. “Most parents who come here want to prove that they can parent,” Thornell says.

Find out more about the facility at and

Top Tips

● Have a good understanding of a person’s learning disability, their communication needs and how they learn most effectively.

● Recognise the individual’s prior experience of professionals’ involvement with their family and understand its effect on how they view support.

● Recognise that long-term low-level support is realistic for some people.

● Examine your own beliefs about people with learning disabilities as parents and how this influences you.

● Examine your own competency to assess a parent with learning disabilities.


This article is published in the 2 April issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Proving ground

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