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Adult learning difficulties and disabilities

Like most families, parents with learning difficulties or disabilities may need some help to bring up their children.  This may come from family and friends. But some parents may need help from local services. And some may need support from children’s services.

Parents with learning disabilities or difficulties may benefit from extra help from a range of services

Extra help from services

Examples include:

  • Help to use support during pregnancy – including working with a midwife
  • Support with new-borns – including working with health visitors
  • Parents’ groups
  • Courses or one-to-one support to help with parenting skills
  • Help to with learning about child development
  • Groups and courses aimed at fathers
  • Practical support in the home. Such as from a family support worker
  • Help to use direct payments to purchase their own chosen support
  • Support with their child’s social and academic development
  • Counselling
  • Advocacy support
  • Short breaks services
  • Help and support for their child from children’s services.

The law and parents with learning difficulties and disabilities

Duties childrens services have to children

What duties do children’s services departments have to support children and families?

Children’s services departments are responsible for supporting children and families in their local area. And for protecting vulnerable children. They have legal duties under section 17 of the Children Act 1989)to:

  • Work to keep children safe, well cared for and at home, unless this would place them at risk
  • Provide a range and level of services in the local area to help children assessed as being in need

Children’s services should have measures for deciding which children in their area are enough in need to get help and services.

Do children’s services always get involved

Do children’s services always become involved with a family where a parent has a learning difficulty or disability?

Children’s services will not always become involved with a family where a parent has a learning disability. But they may do if they think a child and their family need extra support. Or if they are worried a child is not safe or well cared for.

See our Children’s services page for:

  • Ways families may be supported without children’s services involvement
  • The different ways children’s services can become involved with families
  • How children’s services should work with children and families.
Specific help - children with disabilities

How should children’s services approach assessment work?

Children’s services should look at children and parents as individuals. They should look at their specific needs. And should respect the structure and characteristics of a family (see Working Together 2018, page 26, paragraph 43).

Children’s services should:

  • Try to understand how a family operates
  • Work with the whole family
  • Pay attention to the community a family is part of
  • Understand what support the community may provide
  • Be aware of the effects of racism and discrimination
  • Look at how any religious beliefs and cultural traditions influence how a family operates.
Will parents be treated fairly

Will parents with learning difficulties or disabilities be treated fairly by children’s services and other agencies?

The law says that people with learning disabilities must not be discriminated against (see Equalities Act 2010). No one should assume a parent with a learning disability cannot parent safely.

If a parent with a learning disability needs longer term support, it does not mean they cannot care for their child. Cases in the Family Courts have recognised this (see for example Kent County Council v A Mother [2011] EWHC 402, at paragraph 132).

Good practice when working with parents with learning difficulties or disabilities

Children’s services should always work in partnership with children and families. And where a parent has a learning difficulty or disability it is important children’s services follow Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability. This was government guidance, but was then updated in 2016 by the Working Together Parents Network.

A senior Judge has said this guidance is ‘very important’ and recommended practitioners follow it.

The guidance:

  • Is for children’s services and adult services
  • Aims to improve support for parents with learning disabilities and their children
  • Includes advice about communication.

It explains the importance of having the right training, experience and tools when working with parents with learning disabilities. Such as using an approach from the Parenting Assessment Manual (PAMS assessment).

The guidance is based on five features of good practice:

Good Practice Infograpahic

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1. Accessible information, clear communication

Services need to help make sure parents with learning disabilities know it is not unusual to need support with parenting.

All services for parents and children should provide information in ‘accessible’ formats. This may include easy-to-read or video guides. This includes assessment materials and plans.

Both children’s and adult services should take steps to make sure people with learning disabilities who become parents know what support is available.

2. Different services should work together

The guidance says ‘Adult and children’s services, and health and social care, should jointly agree local protocols’. These should cover:

  • How parents can become known to, or access, a service
  • How assessments will be carried out
  • The measures used to decide whether care and support may be provided.

There must also be joint working across all relevant agencies – in particular adult and children’s services.

Anyone working with parents with learning disabilities should have the knowledge, experience and materials to support them. Services should make sure of this.

Parents need to be able to particulate fully in the processes in place.

3. Support informed by assessment of parents & children

An assessment is a way for a social worker to understand a child and family’s situation. It can help to work out:

  • What needs the child has
  • Whether the child’s parents can meet those needs
  • What extra support and services will most help the child and their family.

When a parent with learning disabilities is being assessed, it is important that they are helped to understand why they are being assessed. Parents should be told, in plain language:

  • What the assessment is
  • What it is for
  • What it will involve
  • What will happen next.

Any parenting support that is put in place after an assessment should focus on the specific needs of the child and family.

4. Long-term support

A need for long-term support does not mean a parent cannot look after their child. Children and their needs change. A parent may have needed support when the child was a baby, and have coped well for a number of years. But may need different help once their child becomes a teenager. Children’s services should help families to meet their child’s changing needs.

5. Access to independent advocacy

Independent advocates can be helpful for any parent involved with children’s services. But their support is very valuable for parents with learning difficulties or disabilities. It is important for advocacy support to be made available from an early stage.

And independent advocacy should always be provided to parents with a learning disability where:

Good practice when working with a parent or carer with a learning difficulty or disability during a child protection process

Getting further specialist advice and support

There are specialist organisations and networks which support parents with learning difficulties and disabilities. See the Disability (including learning disability) section of our Useful links page for further information.

Contact details for local council adult social care departments can be found by entering your postcode or town into this search tool on the NHS website.

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