Two years ago, anyone reading the national papers would have received the impression that Essex Council had a policy of removing children from parents with learning disabilities based on one case that attracted media, political and public sympathy. The judge ruled that one of the children had already suffered significant emotional harm, and that there was a likelihood of emotional and physical harm to both children. What the media coverage didn’t show was the support that Essex did offer the family, and many other families with a disabled parent.
Essex is probably not different from anywhere in the country – many disabled parents we don’t know about, others never need additional help or choose not to ask, and some believe that social workers might remove their children. Where we work jointly with parents, we have had good results and positive feedback. Before and since the case, we have had effective arrangements with colleagues in adult social care and health and have developed a joint protocol for staff in adult and children’s services. We also have a Parents for Life project, run with health and adult education, where parents learn practical skills. One parent’s child has returned home from foster care as a result of the course.
National research on parents with learning disabilities shows that there are tensions in the support offered to them. These include differences between the legislation that underpins adults and children’s services and councils working under constant budget pressures.
The key to improving our services for disabled parents is in the Department of Health good practice guidance. We plan to review what we do in Essex to make sure that it fits with that – accessible information and communication, good assessment, support designed to meet the needs of parents and children, long-term support where necessary, and access to independent advocacy. Above all, we want to work jointly with parents who can tell us what they need – we may not be able to provide it all but some of the solutions parents find are simple and creative.
As one of our parents on Parents for Life said: “I can ask for help now, and don’t have to always do what other people want me to.”
Clair Pyper, deputy director for vulnerable children and young people at Essex Council.
Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability