Proud parents

People with learning difficulties are assumed by many not to
make good parents. But some have successfully raised families and
many more could, given the right support. Anabel Unity Sale

When Joan Scott was 18 and newly married, she was told not to
have children. Not for health reasons, but because she has learning
difficulties. She says: “Social services said I
wouldn’t be capable of looking after children but I went
ahead anyway and proved them wrong.”

Scott and her husband have six children, who are now aged
between 36 and 47. They have 23 grandchildren – including one
Scott helped deliver – and are also the legal guardians of
their 19-year-old granddaughter. Over the years the couple have
fostered several young people as well.

She says it never occurred to her to listen to the social
services department. “I always wanted children because I love
kids,” she says. “Our marriage wouldn’t have
worked without them.”

Scott is just one of the growing number of people with learning
difficulties who are choosing to have children. Any parent will
tell you how much time, energy and patience it takes to look after
a child. So what is it like for a parent who also has a learning
difficulty? What support is available for them, what sorts of
problems do they encounter, and what are the choices for parents
with learning difficulties who cannot care for their child at home
but still want a relationship with them?

Social care professionals often assume that parents with
learning difficulties are unable to parent safely or effectively,
according to Sheila Hegarty, family support manager for Elfrida
Rathbone in Camden. The London-based voluntary organisation runs a
support project for parents with learning difficulties and has a
weekly drop-in support group for parents and a weekly parenting
skills group. About 20 parents with learning difficulties and 27
children aged up to 19 attend the project.

Hegarty says the parents she sees have trouble gaining access to
the right support for their family. “There is a confusion for
them about how to get help without feeling they are going to be
punished for wanting or needing it,” she says.

Three years ago Mencap launched a family advisory service in
Gateshead to deal with these issues. Intended for professionals and
families with learning difficulties, it covers  Northumberland,
Tyne and Wear, and Redcar and Cleveland.

Family adviser David Walton says: “About 75 per cent of
the local authorities I work with look at the person’s
learning difficulty first. They don’t look at their strengths
as a parent but at their weaknesses.”

In its first month, the service had one referral and now Walton
works with 15 families, who are often in crisis because of a child
protection issue.

In order for a local authority to provide appropriate support,
parents must be assessed, usually in a residential setting.
National Centre for Disabled Parents support worker Susan Moore
describes this procedure as “very stressful” for the
parent. The problem is compounded by the fact that few centres have
experience of working with people with learning difficulties. She
says: “If professionals aren’t aware of the issues
they’ll make assumptions based on incorrect

Although Scott says the support she received from social
services was limited, she praises the nurse and social worker that
helped her after she had a caesarean section. She says:
“Nowadays there is a lot of help available to parents with
learning difficulties and I could have done with that in my

Although it is crucial for statutory and voluntary agencies to
provide the support a parent with learning difficulties needs,
Walton warns that professionals must not disempower their clients
in the process. He cites the case of one family who have someone in
to clean for an hour a day, seven days a week. “The parents
are perfectly capable of doing it themselves. This sort of support
is disempowering them.”

But professionals and people with learning difficulties alike
have to acknowledge that some parents are simply not capable of
bringing up a child safely.

The Department of Health does not keep figures on the number of
child protection cases featuring children whose parents have
learning difficulties. But professionals suggest that some parents
with learning difficulties may unintentionally neglect their
children who, in turn, may be received into public care. As always,
the needs of the child should be paramount.

Bill Robbins, Association of Directors of Social Services
spokesperson for learning difficulties in south-west England, says
councils should make every effort to keep a family together before
considering court proceedings.

He says: “If a child has to enter the care system, it is a
failure of the system of support more than an intrinsic failure of
the parent with learning difficulties.”

Andrew Holman has acted as an independent expert witness in 12
child care proceedings over the past eight years. He says that
although his role is to put the interests of the child at the
centre of the case, the parents involved have all had similar
experiences. “There is a failure to put in an appropriate
level of support at an early enough stage to enable the parent to

Holman says that many parents with learning difficulties could
continue to manage if support was provided early enough, but that
local authorities often refuse to fund support until a problem has
developed. “As soon as a parent with learning difficulties
has a problem they are almost always on the road to having their
child removed.”

Even with the right support not all parents with learning
difficulties are able to care for their children in their own home.
But Moore says shared care is a valuable middle ground between
supporting a parent and removing their child.

“Fostering and adoption can be arranged so birth families
can maintain links with their child,” she says. “It is
worth looking at because it would be very positive for the child to
retain contact with their natural family.”

Hegarty says any form of temporary fostering could allow parents
a much-needed respite break “before a family gets to crisis

So what can social services do to improve the support they offer
to parents with learning difficulties?

Moore says that more joint working between different social
services teams is needed because teams can feel they work in
isolation. “We need to have joint assessments to see what
support is needed in the whole family and not look at the situation
separately – families don’t operate separately,”
she says.

Holman says that, although there are few examples of good
council-run support schemes for parents with learning difficulties,
those that exist are to be applauded. In some families it may be
more appropriate for learning difficulties professionals to oversee
the child care arrangements on behalf of the children and
families’ team, Holman adds.

“Learning difficulties staff know how a parent learns and
how they respond,” he says. “The more professionals
these parents come into contact with the more confusing it is for

Robbins also argues that the support parents with learning
difficulties receive must be driven from a learning difficulty
perspective. “Learning difficulty staff must not become
paralysed by the child care process.”

He adds that the children’s trusts announced by the health
secretary Alan Milburn last month will lead to a better working

For Scott the most important thing social services can do is
listen to what parents with learning difficulties have to say about
the support they require. She says: “Social services should
listen to people and if they say they are going to do something
they need to do it.”  

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