Improving Support for Parents with Learning Disabilities

Posted on 26th May 2016 by

Life for parents with learning disabilities isn’t just hard — it can be isolating, unsupported, and unfair.

When Brighton & Hove City Council announced they were convening a Fairness Commission to look at inequalities in Brighton & Hove and were seeking examples of unfairness across the city, our first thought was to the situation we see every day surrounding parents with learning disabilities. Our Interact service provides advocacy support to these parents who are being tested on their ability to look after their children, a test where the price of failure can be never seeing your child again.

It’s easy to see how these processes begin, and both natural and fair that the question is asked. It is of utmost importance that the children are safe, and if social workers have any doubts about this the situation must be properly assessed. This is true of any parent — with or without a learning disability — but the unfairness arises when a parent with a learning disability is seen to be unable, currently, to parent safely as there is a huge difference in what the law says should happen next, and the reality of what happens to parents.1

The law states that parents are entitled to support, and the legal test is to see if they can meet the ‘good enough’ standard of parenting with this support. It’s important that parents are not expected to be perfect, it’s normal for parents to have challenges and to make mistakes. And children must have their health and developmental needs met, they must have routine and consistent care, and parents must be able to acknowledge problems and engage with support services when they need them. Parents are entitled to these support services, whether they have asked for help or been told that they need it, and they have a right to be given help to ensure their family can stay together safely. Locally, however, Interact’s clients find that the support just isn’t there.

Today we have published Holly’s story: Holly is a parent with a learning disability who contacted Brighton & Hove City Council because she was worried about the father of her child. She felt he was unsafe, and she needed support to keep her child from harm. But instead of receiving help, Holly was assessed, found to be incapable of parenting safely on her own without support, and as that support was not available, her child was removed from her care. You can hear her story in her own words here:

Holly’s story is tragic, but sadly not uncommon. Of the clients Interact provides advocacy for, 79% end up being taken to court, where the courts are asked to remove the child. Once the case has gone to court 100% of these parents lose their children. 26% of these parents had already had at least one child removed.

The kind of support these parents need — and are entitled to — is not available in Brighton & Hove. This means that a judge is left with a simple decision, remove the child into the care of the council, or leave the child in a home that has been deemed to be unsafe. Once it has reached that point there is no choice for the judge.

What highlights this as being particularly unfair is that in other parts of the country this does not happen. Our submission to the Fairness Commission includes a number of examples from around the country where other local authorities are providing support, and where this support exists it is making huge differences in the outcomes.

Fewer parents end up in court; fewer families are separated; more families are supported to live together safely and happily in the long term.

What is more, the alternative solutions have been shown by independent researchers from the University of Bristol not only to be better, but also cheaper. According to the London School of Economics, in some cases, costs of removing a child can be as much as £74,000 — without even factoring in the ongoing costs of adoption or fostering. Yet according to the University of Bristol alternative support can cost as little as £8,450 per family per year.

We have worked with Holly so she is able to tell her story so that we can highlight where we can do better in Brighton & Hove. For our full report including the legal, academic, cost-benefit analysis and alternatives, click here.

Footnote on legal references:

1. Articles 6, 8, 14 Human Rights Act 1998 / European Convention on Human Rights; Sections 29 & 149 Equalities Act 2010; Department of Health Good Practice Guidance on working with Parents with Learning Disabilities 2007; Art 23 (2) & 23 (4) UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UK ratified 2009); Care Act 2014. See page 2 of our Fairness Commission submission.

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