Is prejudice the reason why so many parents with learning difficulties lose their children? Janet Snell reports
A Dorset woman with learning difficulties was undergoing an assessment of her parenting skills when the psychologist asked her: "Who painted the Cistine chapel?"
She answered: "Was it Leonardo?" but on being told it was Michelangelo she responded: "I knew it was one of the Ninja turtles."
Debbie Harris, an advocate who was supporting the woman at the time, questions whether the assessment process is fair on parents with learning difficulties.
She says: "I sometimes wonder how the professionals who ask these questions think they will find out about what a person is like as a mum or dad. I also feel the assessments go on too long and when they are held in centres away from people's homes it can be disorienting and put those with a learning difficulty at a disadvantage."
Harris, who works with the Dorset Supporting Parents Advocacy Network, is one of a growing number of people who feel the system gives parents with learning difficulties a raw deal and sets them up to fail. It is estimated that more than half have their children taken into care, invariably because of poor parenting and neglect rather than abuse. But last month a study from the Norah Fry Research Centre added weight to the argument that many more parents with learning difficulties could bring up their children if only they received the right support.(1)
John Keep, chair of the Disabled Parents Network, has been arguing this point for years. "When people do have children they either receive no support at all or they are swamped with professionals. I supported one person at a case conference where there were eight professionals involved but nobody pulled it all together. Parents with learning difficulties are stuck in the middle and they aren't given a chance."
Jo Williams, chief executive of Mencap, believes part of the problem is an increasing tendency towards risk aversion. "Those working in children's services often lack training in dealing with people with learning difficulties and they don't seem to see beyond their prejudice. They go in with the mindset 'these people just aren't going to make it as parents'."
Andrew Holman, director of Inspired Services, who has supported several parents through care proceedings, believes people with learning difficulties are being denied their human rights.
"People try to stop them having a relationship, having sex, having a baby, keeping the babywhy are some professionals so shocked that people with learning difficulties want to start a family?"
The issue hit the headlines last year when the Daily Mail took up the cudgels on behalf of a couple whose children were taken into care by Essex Council, supposedly because they were "too slow to be parents". Unsurprisingly, it became clear that the newspaper had distorted the facts and the case was not an example of overzealous social workers as there were other grounds for taking the children into care. Clair Pyper, service director for children and young people in Essex, says though it was galling to see the local authority's actions misrepresented, some good has come out of it.
"We have completely rewritten and updated our protocol between the adults' and children's services to ensure each is clear about their respective roles."
It is a move that other councils may well want to emulate now that separate children's and adults' services have become the norm (in England at least).
At a conference in Birmingham last month, senior family court judge Donald Hamilton highlighted the potential dangers of the split, warning that it could have an adverse effect on parents with learning difficulties. Delegates were told that, although staff working for adults' services were more likely to believe people with learning difficulties could bring up their children given the right support, those with children's services, while acting with the best of intentions, were sometimes too hasty in reaching the conclusion that they were "inadequate parents".
The fear is that, unless the communication channels are kept open between children's and adults' workers, a disproportionate number of parents with learning difficulties will continue to be denied the right to family life and their children will continue to go through the hell of having to say goodbye to their birth parents.
(1) Finding the Right Support, The Baring Foundation, 2006
"I have three boys. Four years ago social services went to court to have them placed with new families. At the time they were 12, eight and five. Me and my husband had gone to pick them up from school but they were not there. Social services had taken them. It gave us the shock of our lives.
"After that I had to talk to lots of people and do lots of tests. Everyone kept giving me orders. I couldn't understand what they wanted. It felt like nobody would give me a chance.
"In the end they split up all the children. It was decided that my eldest would be placed in long-term foster care. We have worked with social services and now we have unsupervised contact.
"My middle son was adopted quite early on after the court case finished so me and my husband said goodbye to him. But then it all fell through. I don't know why. He has now been adopted by a single man, which I am not happy with. We can't see him but he has contact with his brothers. They tell us how he is doing. I do have a problem with the fact we can't see our own son. It's like we're treated as criminals.
"They could not find an adoptive placement for my youngest. We made sure it went back to court and the order has now been changed to long-term foster care and we see him every school holiday."
"I have three children - my eldest son is 11 and the twins are eight.
"About two years ago social services started proceedings. I thought the children would come back. But they didn't.
"My son was fostered by my mum and I'm happy with that but the twins were adopted. My twin daughter said she wanted to come back but nobody would listen to her. She kept crying. My little boy also said he wanted to come home.
"I was tested by a psychologist but I didn't understand the questions. And the doctor made me feel uncomfortable. I was brought up in care myself and I think that was held against me.
"In the end I was told if you don't contest it they will encourage the adopters to allow direct contact with the twins. But that never happened. They tried every trick in the book to get me to agree to adoption but whatever they said I just didn't want to lose the children. I wish social services would concentrate on children who are really at risk."
"I have two daughters of 17 and 15. They have both been in separate long-term foster placements. They were both removed from my care. In the end I agreed to let them go voluntarily because it was difficult controlling them. I think I could have kept them at home if the support had been better - it needed people the girls could get on with.
"Social services made an order to keep the girls in care. I had to do assessments for it. It was tough. It took hours. They asked me about shapes and patterns and what was the next word. I couldn't concentrate and didn't know what it was about. I was nervous.
"I had an assessment at home which was better but it still went on for hours. When it was all over I just felt I had failed and I had let my daughters down."