New baby, new start


PRACTITIONER:  Ann Davis, social worker. 

FIELD:  Children and families.

LOCATION:  Reading, Berkshire. 

CLIENT:  Beth Clement, 35, has been known to
children’s services for seven years. She has two children aged two
and six. Beth has learning difficulties and has received very
little support from her own family. However, social services
provided a range of family support, including a family centre
service and outreach work. 

CASE HISTORY: The children’s father was violent
to Beth when they lived together. There were also concerns about
the father’s treatment of the children and about Beth’s parenting
skills. With the children at significant risk the local authority
went to court and the children were removed. The children’s father
also left. In the summer of 2003 Beth contacted the department to
say that she was pregnant again, the father being her new partner,
Craig Carter, who also has learning difficulties. An assessment was
begun but the allocated worker left the department. Davis, then a
social work student with the referrals and assessment team, was
asked to take up the case. 

DILEMMA:  Beth and Craig wanted the chance to
parent their child together but Beth’s parenting history and skills
suggested that this was not possible. 

RISK FACTOR:  There was not only a risk of
neglect for the new baby but also a professional risk in backing
the assessment carried out by an inexperienced student social

OUTCOME:  The baby is thriving and Beth and
Craig’s relationship remains solid.   

With social work’s well-documented recruitment and retention
difficulties, team managers have the unenviable task of sometimes
having to make do and perhaps over-expose inexperienced and not-yet
qualified staff.

At times this can be counter-productive. There are plenty of
anecdotes about newly qualified staff being given a host of complex
child protection cases with which they cannot cope and which lead
to stress-related sick leave or resignation.

However, it can also be a test of mettle and a chance to ground
theory into practice. This proved to be the case for student social
worker Ann Davis when she was asked to complete an assessment of
Beth Clement, a woman with learning difficulties whose first two
children were removed, and who was now pregnant again. Her new
partner, the child’s father, Craig Carter, also had mild learning

“It was difficult for me,” says Davis, “as I already knew Beth from
the family centre where I had previously worked before taking up my
social work course.” Beth had been receiving extensive support from
social services but even this did not prevent Beth losing her
children. Despite her reservations, Davis met the couple to carry
out a pre-birth assessment. Craig, who attended alternative
schooling from the age of 14, also had three children, one of whom
recently moved in with him following a residency order.

According to Davis the couple were under no illusion about what
might happen: “They were both very anxious that the baby would be
removed. It was quite a challenge for me as a student to carry out
a pre-birth assessment. I wondered about which angle to take, but I
concluded that it would need Craig to be the primary carer, not
least because Beth was also suffering from depression at that

During her previous parenting skills training, it was felt that
Beth wasn’t able to transfer any learning from the family centre
into her home – instead often placing her own needs first. “Without
any family support she was very much on her own. So, much of my
groundwork was to revisit the files. I began unpicking Beth’s
childhood experiences; she was bullied by her older sister. And it
was this sister who held the residency order on the removed
children. So whenever Beth had contact visits with her children,
her sister was always in a position of power,” says Davis.

She continues: “It seemed clear that Beth was never going to fit
right with her family. I kept trying to tap into what it meant for
her as a woman with learning difficulties. We talked about being
shamed and criticised.”

Having established a level of trust with the couple, Davis began to
recognise that this was an opportunity for things to be different.
“I could see they were in a very different place: the way they
talked about their relationship, how they resolved their issues,
what they did together. There was also a strong network from
Craig’s family.”

Craig’s child, 13, also spoke positively about how life had changed
for him now that he was living with his dad. His achievements at
school and his behaviour improved.

“We worked closely to make sure all antenatal and health care
appointments were kept. Health professionals felt that Beth and
Craig were asking appropriate questions and there was no evidence
of poor diet or anything. It was my assessment that they’d be OK to
keep the child. Beth was very clear that this baby was not there to
replace her other children, and she was able to talk about what
should have happened to protect those children. Importantly, they
said that they wouldn’t have any more children – as this might well
have tipped the balance. They wanted to stay together as a family,”
says Davis.

The baby’s health was monitored closely for the first three months
and Davis was impressed with how the family bonded and how Beth and
Craig talked to the baby. Beth was offered an assessment for her
daily living needs but she refused. The baby is 18 months old now
and is thriving – and without any need of social services

Reflecting on her work, Davis, who is now fully qualified, says:
“My manager says that I was appropriately anxious. I kept thinking
about what we were taught at college about human rights: their
right to family life. It challenged my own belief systems. Of
course, there were reservations but what screamed inside me at that
time was that this was the right decision – and I still believe it


  • The marked difference this time around is clearly the strength
    that Craig brings to the relationship. He has proven parenting
    skills – with the court agreeing to his son moving in with him.
    Beth and Craig’s relationship is clearly a loving one – unlike
    Beth’s relationship with her previous partner, who was violent
    towards her.  
  • Craig would not only be able to assume the role of primary
    carer but also had a strong family network upon which to call –
    again something denied Beth.  
  • Davis’s work in unpicking the childhood experiences of Beth
    also went some way to explaining why Beth acted as she had
  • Having built up a trusting relationship Beth was able to
    understand what she should have done differently to protect her two
    other children.  
  • Although the couple kept the baby the family would be closely
    monitored by social care and health professionals for the first few


  • Beth’s parenting history would point to very serious concerns
    about the safety of the baby. She was unable to protect her
    children from abuse from their father. Although she is the victim
    of domestic abuse, her own poor parenting contributed to the
    neglect of the two children. Her learning difficulties meant that
    she would put her own needs ahead of all others – and this may put
    the children at risk of significant harm.  
  • Despite extensive support from social services – attending a
    family centre and outreach work – Beth was still not able to care
    for her children safely. Even allowing for Craig to be the primary
    carer, Beth will need to provide care on her own and she has proven
    herself unable to do this in the past.  
  • Worryingly, Beth also suffered from depression during her
    pregnancy. This could have escalated after the birth of the child –
    placing strains on her caring capacity and her relationship with


Take out the fact that Craig and Beth have learning difficulties
and this sounds like many other child protection scenarios, writes
Kathryn Stone. Limited parenting skills, domestic violence, failure
to protect children and mother’s depression all add up to an
explosive mix which requires careful assessment and support.   At
Voice UK we hear many situations that sound very similar to this
one: except that the outcome is that the child is removed at
birth.   The  rights to a family life of people with learning
difficulties are often ignored leaving them traumatised by the
removal of their children.  Thankfully, Davis approached this from
a “can do” rather than “this will never work” perspective, giving
the parents the opportunity to care for their baby. Initially I was
worried about Davis’s lack of experience and the fact that she was
not yet qualified. But maybe fresh from her course and full of
optimism she has yet to be tainted by the cynical
over-protectionism of others when it comes to the children of
parents with learning difficulties. She was able to take the theory
taught – in this case about human rights – and apply it to her
practice.  Making sure that the right balance is struck between
enabling development of skills and protecting children is a
difficult and demanding task. It seems that Davis has got this
balance right and Beth and Craig have achieved their right to a
family life with the proper amount of support.   Kathryn Stone is
director of the learning difficulties charity Voice UK, and is a
former child protection worker.

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