A court has ruled two young children whose mother has a learning disability can be adopted, despite accepting criticism by her legal team of the local authority involved with the family.
At the family court hearing in Bournemouth in November, Judge Dancey acknowledged there was “considerable force” in arguments that the authority’s assessment and support of the mother could have been better.
He said that while individual workers “did their level best to make things work”, the council had not always followed government guidance around working with learning-disabled parents.
But the judgement, published just before Christmas, said a suggested support package to enable the children to return to their mother and father, both of whom suffer with depression, would amount to ‘substituted parenting’.
The needs of the children, ‘K’ and ‘T’, who had already been placed in interim care, could therefore only be met by placement for adoption, Judge Dancey said.
K and T’s elder sister, named as ‘A’, had already been placed with a couple under a special guardianship order and had expressed a wish to stay with them.
‘Loving and dignified’ parents
Judge Dancey said the “first and most important” thing to note was the parents of A, K and T loved their children, had engaged well with services and had acted with “the utmost dignity” during legal proceedings.
Their involvement with local authority children’s services began in 2014, not long after the mother was diagnosed with a learning disability. A child in need assessment was carried out, but not pursued, after A was assaulted by a friend of her mother’s.
A family support worker, HP, was later allocated. The parents were referred in 2016 to Incredible Years (IY) parenting courses at the local children’s centre, which HP led.
“The IY course is presented at basic level but is not tailored for those with learning difficulty,” the judgment said. “HP is not trained to work with people with learning disability [and] was not aware for certain of the mother’s difficulties [which were recounted in her evidence].”
Another child in need assessment, in March 2016, noted the parents’ “struggles with day-to-day living”. Both were at this point depressed and “socially isolated” but said they were grateful for support from the children’s centre and a health visitor.
More child in need meetings followed and in May 2016 the mother was referred to the adult learning disability team (ALDT), though no assessment was carried out for more than six months. By the autumn a review meeting found the parents “clearly at a low point” and in need of support to meet their children’s needs.
“The social worker recognised that the mother may need information delivered in a ‘simplistic and gradual manner’ to assist her understanding and increase the chance of her addressing issues; a ‘task centred’ approach was thought to be more helpful,” the judgment said.
A psychological report by a doctor dated October 2016 described the mother as being unable to manage finances or to cook unsupervised, and recommended ongoing home-based support.
Meanwhile the father had been in touch with a local mental wellbeing service but was discharged after missing appointments.
Agreed support from family and friends “had not materialised”, meaning their flat remained cluttered, and in early December a duty social worker raised significant concerns about the young children’s safety, leading to child protection enquiries being started. Soon after the mother threatened to kill herself and spent 10 days in hospital.
An initial child protection conference in January 2017 resulted in a child protection plan for neglect being implemented. A review meeting in late March found ongoing concerns but also noted “progress” both around the condition of the flat, the children’s appearance and the parents’ relationship.
“The [review] outcome was that professionals needed to see improvements maintained consistently over the next six months,” the judgment said.
On 6 April, however, a profile carried out by the council’s family assessment specialist team (FAST) – criticised by Judge Dancey as “not balanced” – presented a uniformly negative picture of how the children’s needs were being met. This was followed by another FAST report that described the children as “the epitome of neglected”, leading to the local authority starting care proceedings in May.
In the interim, the family had gone on a camping trip. During this, concerns were raised by an ambulance crew after K suffered a fit and was found to be dehydrated. The father also disclosed to the health visitor that the mother had caused a large burn to the tent after leaving a stove turned on.
Subsequent FAST reports published after the children had been placed under interim care orders said that “there would need to be an additional primary caregiver in place permanently for the duration of their minorities” in order for them to be safe at home.
The couple were unable to access additional support because the mother – who was by now being assisted by the ADLT as well as other agencies – did not meet Care Act 2014 eligibility criteria, Judge Dancey noted.
Guidance not always followed
Among a series of findings, the judge said the local authority should have been more aware of the mother’s learning disability.
The council argued this was not formally identified until assessment by the ADLT, and should have been spelled out by the father. But, Judge Dancey observed, the first child in need assessment in 2014 had recorded the mother as being learning disabled. Other social workers and the FAST team ought to have known this, he said.
Assessing criticisms of the local authority made by the parents’ legal team, the judge noted the lack of a protocol based on best-practice guidance, which, he said had “not always been followed in this case”.
He said there had “not been enough focus on planned support and a positive strategy to try and keep this family together” and that there had been unacceptable delays in assessments.
However, Judge Dancey said, the threshold for taking T and K into care had been “easily exceeded”, which the parents had disputed.
He added that arguments made by the local authority and children’s guardian that the mother’s learning disability left her at a “fixed point” in terms of parenting capacity had been made out.
Meanwhile T and K’s father was described as at the pre-contemplative stage in the ‘cycle of change’ model. He was unlikely to be able to bridge the gap in meeting the children’s needs, the judge said.
“I do not have sufficient confidence in the father to be able to make the changes necessary within the children’s timescales to be able to support the mother in a way that this family could be left to parent alone,” Judge Dancey concluded. He accepted the argument that a package of intensive support advocated by the parents’ legal team would amount to substituted parenting.
Jon Symonds, an academic with Bristol University who has researched learning-disabled parents’ experiences with children’s services, said the case “raised questions” about how well-equipped local authorities are in implementing best-practice guidance.
This was especially pertinent as more adults with learning disabilities are forming relationships and having children against a backdrop of reduced resources, he said. He added that the cycle of change model referenced in the judgment had also been critiqued in recent years.
“Although the practitioners in this situation seemed to work collaboratively, a coordinated approach at the strategic level, as recommended by the guidance, should ensure more families get the support they need, earlier, so parents with learning disabilities have the best chance to care for their children,” Symonds said.