Camilla Pemberton reports on a Family Action service that helps parents with learning disabilities gain the skills to enable them to look after their children successfully
More than half of parents with learning disabilities will have their children taken away at some stage, says Mencap head Mark Goldring, "often because of preconceived ideas that parents with a learning disability are unable to cope". This was highlighted last May when the Daily Telegraph reported a case where a three-year-old girl was to be adopted because, it claimed, social services had deemed her mother "too stupid" to look after her.
But staff at Family Action's Valuing Families service in Leicestershire know that, when properly supported, people with learning disabilities can be excellent parents. The service was commissioned by Leicestershire Council in 2003 to provide tailored support for parents with learning disabilities, after local practitioners identified a need for additional support. Financed by the Children's Fund, it has so far worked with 70 families, and 100 children. "Our aim is to enable and empower learning disabled parents," says project manager Clare Walker.
Valuing Families is a universal service that parents can access directly, although most are referred by social services and primary care trusts. Workers visit families at least weekly, and sometimes daily, to observe parents' childcare routines and draw up care plans based on parents' views and level of need. This normally lasts for nine months, but there are no set time limits, Walker says.
Challenges faced by parents
To enable professionals to gain a proper understanding of the challenges parents face, the service recruited a nurse specialising in learning disabilities to help develop staff training. One of the challenges for people with learning disabilities is accessing information: "Parents' understanding is often very literal so they struggle to process certain formats of information, such as letters and forms," says Walker. "We work with them at their pace."
Project worker Claire Wilson uses images to communicate key messages to parents, as they "help parents to understand, and remember, domestic routines".
"For bedtime, we use wallcharts with sequential pictures, such as milk and biscuits, a toothbrush, pyjamas, a cuddle and a song or story," she says. "We explain the sequence to parents and why, for example, they should read and sing with children. Parents start taking control and children respond to the structure, which allows the relationship to grow and develop."
Children also begin to receive the right amount of attention and sleep, which benefits their behaviour at home and school.
Key skills taught
Wilson also teaches parents key skills on a one-to-one basis. "When teaching parents how to prepare nutritious meals, I take them food shopping and show them how to vary recipes and explain why children need variety in their diet," she says.
Parents are also given personalised recipe folders, with step-by-step pictorial instructions and explanations of key cooking terms, and are taught how to manage their finances, which involves bulk buying and meal planning.
The parents learn through repetition, so Wilson revisits skills and routines until they can manage independently. "The support is very interactive," Walker says. "Parents are always consulted, and we explain why we are working with them in such a way. We want to build up their confidence and understanding, not make their home feel like a kindergarten classroom."
Visits take place in families' homes, "so parents don't have to relearn in different environments," Wilson says. Families are also linked in with other services, such as children's centres, which are made aware of their needs, as are schools. "It's important that schools respect parents' level of understanding and send information home in accessible formats," Wilson states.
Building positive relationships by developing mutual respect and trust is imperative in order for parents to accept help. "There's often a fear of information, which has been very confusing in these parents' experience, and a fear that seeking help will result in the loss of their children," says Walker.
"Sometimes we're involved during birth planning and can offer very early help, but whenever we meet families we explain that our aim is to help them gain control, not to judge. When they understand this family life improves dramatically."
➔ More about Valuing Families
Kate, single mother with learning disabilities
Pictorial help enabled Kate to keep her baby
When Kate*, a single mother with severe learning disabilities, was referred to Valuing Families, her baby was refusing to take his bottle and was not thriving. A friend had told Kate to warm his bottle in a microwave, but not at which temperature, so the temperature was scalding the baby's mouth.
Workers explained why the milk needed to be warmed at a cooler temperature and showed Kate how, leaving pictorial instructions by the microwave to remind her. Kate continued to work with project workers to prevent similar situations occurring and was also referred to Valuing Families' Me and My Baby service, a group parenting programme specially adapted for parents with learning disabilities. Both mother and baby quickly became happier.
Parents with a disability
● In the year to 31 March 2009, 1,200 children in England were taken into care because of parental illness or disability. (Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families)
● Up to 250,000 parents in the UK have a learning disability. (Source: Mencap)
● A 2005 survey (Professor Eric Emerson, Lancaster University, et al) revealed that only 52% of parents with learning disabilities had not had their children taken into alternative care.
This article is published in the 14 January edition of Community Care under the headline "Where a learning disability is no bar to good parenting"