In theory, people with support needs are entitled to pursue ordinary lives and enjoy equal rights. But how far does that really extend?
Not to parenting. Although there is greater acceptance of everyone’s right to form relationships and to marry, that acceptance can run out rapidly when people with learning disabilities want to have children.
While children’s services can be swift to identify risk, neither adults’ nor children’s services are well equipped to assess that risk without prejudice, nor to provide timely, accessible support. Buck-passing is common. Parents with learning disabilities are routinely asked to demonstrate their parenting competence in the alien and stressful environment of an assessment centre and are given information that they cannot read or understand.
Although most first-time parents benefit from the support of family, parenting groups and post-natal services, many parents with learning disabilities are isolated with little family support. Some are in abusive relationships. They find themselves unwelcome at parenting groups and unable to access services delivered by professionals not trained to work with them. They are set up to fail.
Traditional services are usually deemed too expensive to provide the out-of-hours support that would allay children’s services’ safeguarding concerns. Parents with mild learning disabilities may wrongly be deemed ineligible for adults’ services.
Family support body Home-Start, Shared Lives schemes, learning disability charity Change and others are beginning to build evidence that support for these parents, which also safeguards children, is possible and affordable. In the meantime, for most parents with learning disabilities, personalisation, choice and control remain nowhere to be seen and the lack of support they are offered is a hidden national scandal.
Alex Fox is chief executive of NAAPS, the network for Shared Lives, Homeshare and small community services
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