Learning difficulties parents: A Gloucestershire project shows way forward

With half of all children born to parents with learning difficulties being taken into care, a support group in south Gloucestershire has provided some lessons for staff also. Graham Hopkins reports

In Valuing People, the government recognises that parents with learning difficulties can be “can be good parents”, but “may require considerable help”. And yet, with about half of parents still having their children removed, it seems that help is falling considerably short.

A Social Services Inspectorate (now the Commission for Social Care Inspection) report in 2000, A Jigsaw of Services, highlighted shortfalls in the quality of planning and services for such parents, pointing out that their needs too often fell between adult and children’s services: something which the move toward more specialised adult and children’s services may exacerbate.

But in south Gloucestershire, the jigsaw is being pieced together. Vikki Jenkins, a chartered counselling psychologist with the adult learning disabilities service, says: “Historically, the debate over whether the needs of parents with disabilities should fall to the adult learning disability or child social services teams had caused confusion for social workers from both teams.

“So we met and thought how we could work more effectively together to support these parents and their children.”

Realising they were doubling up in terms of assessments and interventions and with parents saying they couldn’t get to grips with the usual parenting groups, the teams came up with the idea of running a specialised parenting group “for vulnerable mums”.

Making use of the Parent Assessment Manual, developed by Sue McGraw and colleagues in Cornwall – “the gold standard of testing abilities of parents with learning difficulties” – the needs identified included building self-esteem, exploring social networks, ways for managing challenging situations with young infants, health and safety, hygiene, and food and nutrition.

The pilot group ran for three months, once a week with crche and transport provided. “Each topic was covered, with a related creative activity built in,” says Jenkins. “However, we have to say that the outcomes from the group were not quite what we expected when we started.”

The parents, it seemed, knew most of the things that they were taught; perhaps indicating a gap between what they know and what they can do. “But they benefited most from being in a group with other parents with learning difficulties: the peer support aspect,” says Jenkins.

Indeed, peer support probably motivated them to take part in the first place. “It is consistent with research findings,” she adds.

“One of the difficulties for these parents is that they are so socially isolated and one of the critical factors in parenting failure is a lack of support system.”

The group then became more informal so parents could lead the discussion. Says Jenkins: “Facilitators should be able to provide parenting skills knowledge if required, but know when to step back and let the group run itself.”

One parent, Tracey Vincent, whose first two sons had been removed, was confident that with support from the group she could now care for her new son Joshua. “It’s helped me a lot,” she says. “I’d been through a lot with my other two boys. I had them when I was quite young and didn’t know what I was doing. But I’m more mature now and I know what I’m doing. I really did enjoy meeting new people and wish more groups could be run. I no longer have social services with me anymore – I’m a better mum now and very happy.”

With emotional support a strong motivating factor, new members will need time to establish relationships so groups are set to run for six months rather than three. “We will also provide a facilitated drop-in group to run alongside the main group, so once the six months is over, there’ll still be something for these parents,” says Jenkins.

And for parents such as Tracey Vincent, that something is very valuable. cc

Lessons learned

  • Get everyone together often enough to work out who is going to do what, and keep it going.
  • Be practical about resources available – children’s team provided two support workers, creche and transport, and the adults’ team provided both a qualified and assistant psychologist.
  • Be clear about issues of confidentiality with the group at the beginning and throughout. “On one occasion we had to report back an allegation to the social worker that could have broken down trust,” says Jenkins.
  • Support needs to be long-term.
  • The creative activities enabled a more relaxed conversation than a straight discussion group might have. “An example of this was two mums sharing what it felt like to attend a case conference – the first time they had been able to do this with a peer,” she says.

  • More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.