Supporting learning disabled parents to keep their children

Often the most controversial child protection cases appearing in the media are those concerning learning disabled parents whose children have been taken into care. These stories are often sensationalist and rarely convey the full facts of a case.

A Kent project is proving that proper support for parents with learning disabilities can lead to fewer children being taken into care, reports Louise Hunt

Often the most controversial child protection cases appearing in the media are those concerning learning disabled parents whose children have been taken into care. These stories are often sensationalist and rarely convey the full facts of a case.

However, researchers at the Norah Fry Centre at Bristol University – a leading centre of research on services for learning disabilities – do estimate that parents with learning disabilities are up to 50 times more likely to be involved in care proceedings.

Nationally there is a lack of data collected on the numbers of looked-after children whose birth parents have learning disabilities. This is the reason why little progress has been made on 2005 guidance stressing that children’s and adults’ services should work together to keep children with learning disabled parents where possible according to Patricia Kearney, head of family and children’s services at the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Scie).

“This is not a well researched or promoted area of practice and there are no drivers for local authorities to deal with it. It is not high up on the agenda right now,” she says.

If anything, with the current spending cuts, parents are facing increasing difficulties gaining support, potentially leading to more children going into care, says Philipa Bragman, director of Change, a human rights charity and employer of people with learning disabilities.

Unfair scrutiny

Bragman says learning disabled parents often feel they are put under unfair scrutiny, driven by an assumption that if they have a learning disability they cannot be a good parent.

“These parents are often judged in ways that other parents are not,” she argues. “They are the only group with a perceived risk from the start. They go through a process where they have to prove they can parent rather than an assessment of what support they need to parent. They feel they are set up to fail,” she says.

Bragman believes many of these issues stem from miscommunication between parents and practitioners.

“The parents are often seen as being difficult when they can’t quite understand what is required of them. There is an assumption when communication breaks down that they don’t care, but very few parents are deliberately difficult.”

Campaigners and researchers in the field also argue that support through joint working would in fact save councils money.

This has been recently shown in an evaluation of the Valuing Parents Support Service (VPSS) run by Medway Council, in Kent – one of the pioneering councils in this area. Initially introduced in 2009 as a two-year joint project between adult and children’s services the service works with 30 families. Three parent support workers visiting parents in their homes, or at their children’s foster care placements. They provide support aimed at improving parenting skills and parental engagement with services to ensure the health and well-being of the children.

Rosie Sturge, one of the social workers on the project, says: “the level of input goes up and down and we will always try to steer families back to mainstream services when we can, but some families need support for some time”.

Expert assessment of needs

What makes it unusual is that children’s and adults’ services refer all parents with learning disabilities to the VPSS for expert assessment of their support needs, rather than undertake assessments themselves. “Referrals are passed to me to ensure there aren’t any unmet needs. Common themes are poor housing or advice on benefits, or drug and alcohol dependency, so I might refer onto appropriate services,” she says. Parent support workers receive supervision from children’s and adults’ services and any issues that may arise are fed back to both departments.

While the service is beginning to help avoid the crisis points that often trigger the need for child protection intervention, most of its referrals are still from parents who are already involved in legal proceedings or are on child protection plans.

An evaluation of the scheme, published in May by the Norah Fry Centre found that VPSS was helping to keep more families together in comparison with the previous system. An audit confirmed that 84% of children were living with one or both parents, while almost two-thirds were judged not to be at risk of significant harm.

“We have certainly had families who have in the past had children taken away, but with our support have been able to keep subsequent children, or sometimes children are returned,” says Sturge. The VPSS continues to support parents whose children are taken into care for a period afterwards.

The analysis

In the analysis, the child protection team noted that cases also progressed faster due to the use of community assessments rather than residential assessments and children’s social workers were discharging cases earlier, as they were confident of the VPSS team’s ability to monitor cases and report any issues to them.

While children’s services are looking at how to quantify the cost savings highlighted in the report, a recent exercise has shown that carrying out a community-based assessment in the parents’ home over three weeks costs in the region of £10,000, compared with about £36,000 if the couple had gone to a residential centre.

The Norah Fry report concluded that without the service “these children and their parents would receive a less effective and more costly response if VPSS did not exist”, and “they would likely be involved in repeated referrals to social care and other agencies”. As a consequence, “the service could be seen as a demonstration model for authorities around the UK”.

Certainly, Kearney believes the time is right now for a national approach to supporting parents with learning disabilities, adding that the approach of “let’s tackle a whole load of things in one approach” should have merit across departments.

‘They didn’t assess my needs’

“Having my children removed from me completely ruined my life,” says Catherine Carter, a parent with a learning disability (pictured top). She has two children, the younger of whom also has a learning disability. “I feel if I had support I could have kept my older child,” she says. Her children are now in adoptive care and she has contact with her eldest, aged 12, for three hours every half term and sees her younger child once a year.

Carter says she feels let down by social services. “They only assessed me on how I looked after my children, not on the support I needed and the information wasn’t shared with the adult team,” she says.

Carter is one of two trainers for Change which delivers training programmes to social workers and students nationwide. She uses her experiences to challenge perceptions of parents with learning disabilities.

“Just because some people with learning disabilities are not fit to parent doesn’t mean none of us are,” she says. The training days include a short film of real experiences of parents with learning disabilities who are coping well. Participants are invited to suggest ways in which real scenarios between parents with learning disabilities and social services could have been better handled.

Carter’s key messages to social workers is to “listen to the parent with learning disabilities and look at their situation before criticising their parenting. Find out what help they need and don’t just do an assessment on their parenting. We always say to children’s social workers they should be co-operating with adult social workers and vice-versa,” she says.

Bragman adds that participants often say their attitudes are changed by seeing parents with learning disabilities who are themselves professional trainers. “The whole point of the training is to challenge perceptions,” she says.

Pictured top: Catherine Carter, picture by Justin Slee

Published in Community Care 29 September 2011 under the heading ‘Parents who feel set up to fail’

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