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Children and Young People of Parents with Learning Disabilities

A learning disability is a lifelong condition, which has been diagnosed by a qualified health professional or a multi-disciplinary team. Parents may need regular support, which will need to change to meet the developmental needs of a child/young person as they grow. There is a legal requirement to ensure assessments consider the implications for the child/young person as they develop throughout childhood and services will need to re-evaluate the child's/young person’s circumstances. Clear plans should be in place on how this will be achieved.

A person with a learning disability might have difficulty with understanding complex information.

Some people with a learning disability have care and support needs under the Care Act 2014. An assessment can be accessed via Adult Care Services.

Some people with a learning disability can also access specialist health services e.g. HPFT

A learning disability is different for everyone, and a full assessment is needed to identify what the person’s strengths and difficulties are.

Please note a learning disability and learning difficulty are different.

A learning difficulty is a problem that a person faces in learning such as ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia and dyscalculia and does not affect a person’s is intellect. A person can have one or more learning difficulties and with varying severity.

For further information, see the Mencap website.

There is a far wider group of parents, who may not have a diagnosis and would not generally fit the eligibility criteria for support from a specialist LD service. Support from other services should be discussed with the parents. A multi-agency approach is essential when supporting parents with learning disabilities.

If a learning difficulty is impacting on other aspects of family life you may benefit from some support via Families First. If the family already have a professional who they see as their key worker i.e. school family worker, health visitor, they can approach them in the first instance to discuss if they feel it would be beneficial for a Families First Assessment.

Parents with learning disabilities may face a wide range of barriers to bringing up their children successfully, and they may or may not recognise that they need support and help to enable them to learn to be the best parents possible.

Historically IQ testing was used as an assessment method in an attempt to categorise degrees of learning disability, however, the current multi-disciplinary assessment uses a broader approach to assess strengths and needs. This should be part of a person-centred approach to care and support planning, leading to a person-centred assessment/ plan. The parent(s) should be fully involved in the assessment and consulted throughout the process. Advocates should be involved to support the parents where appropriate.

The additional support needs of parents with learning disabilities should include the ability to meet a child's/young person’s developmental needs, as well as their own; personal care of the child; preparation of meals and drinks; attending to the child's/young person’s health needs; parental involvement in indoor and outdoor play; support in education and help to identify potential risks to their child(ren).

Where a parent has a learning disability, it is important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. A full assessment should be completed with the support of other professionals.

Practitioners should not make the assumption that having a learning disability means that a person cannot learn new skills. Parents with learning disabilities can be 'good enough' parents when the right support is put in place in a timely way.

If services fail to coordinate support effectively, parents with learning disabilities are at risk of falling through the gap between the provision of services for children/young people and the provision of services for adults. As a result, some parents may miss out on support services that they need in order to prevent problems from arising. Early help and Family Support services should be considered at an early stage in order to promote positive outcomes and to promote the child's/young person’s welfare. In Hertfordshire you can contact Families First or Herts Help to find out what support may be available.

The context in which people with learning disabilities have children is one that has been dominated by the perception of risk and the assumption that their parenting will not be good enough. However, parents with learning disabilities can be good parents when appropriate support is put in place. Adults with learning disabilities may need support to develop the understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their children. This will be particularly necessary if they are experiencing additional difficulties such as domestic abuse, poor physical or mental health, caring for a disabled child/young person, substance misuse, social isolation / discrimination, poor housing or poverty.

Neglect through acts of omission is a frequently stated concern; ultimately it is the quality of care experienced by the child/young person which determines whether the parenting capacity can be regarded as ‘good enough’ and whether or not a referral should be made for an assessment by Children's Services.

Similarly, women with learning disabilities may be Adults at Risk and targets for men who wish to gain access to children/young people for the purpose of sexually abusing them.

Children/young people may end up taking increasing responsibility for caring for themselves and, at times, for their siblings, parents and other family members. A referral to the local Young Carers Support Group may be appropriate. Young Carers - Carers In Herts.

Professionals should consider the following points when seeking to understand people’s needs and circumstances:

  • Does the child/young person take on roles and responsibilities within the home that are inappropriate for the child’s/young person’s age and adversely impacts on their health and development?
  • Does the parent/carer neglect their own and their child's/young person’s physical and emotional needs?
  • Are good routines in place within the house such as meals times, bedtimes etc?
  • How is safety managed for the child/young person?
  • Does the parent/carer have any other issues which need to be addressed such as mental health issues, substance misuse, adverse childhood experiences etc?
  • Does the parent/carer's learning disability have implications for the child/young person with school, attending health appointments etc?
  • Does the parent/carer's learning disability result in them rejecting or being emotionally unavailable to the child/young person?
  • Does the wider family understand and accept the learning disability of the parent/carer, and the impact of this on the parent/carer's ability to meet the child's/young person’s needs?
  • Is the wider family/friendship group able and willing to support the parent/carer so that the child's/young person’s needs are met?
  • Does culture, ethnicity, religion or any other factor relating to the family have implications on their understanding of the learning disability and the potential impact on the child/young person?
  • How do the family function, including conflict, potential family break up, domestic abuse issues etc impact on the child/young person?
  • Is the parent/carer vulnerable to being exploited e.g. financially, providing accommodation?
  • Does the parent/carer have difficulty developing and sustaining relationships or have relationships that may present a risk to the child/young person?
  • Does the parent have a limited understanding of the child's/young person’s needs and development including pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for an infant?
  • Does the parent/carer have poor parenting experiences from their own parents as a child/young person?
  • Does the parent/carer know how to discipline the child/young person appropriately?
  • Does the parent/carer have difficulty accessing health care and other support for themselves or the child/young person?
  • In relation to pregnant women, should a pre-birth assessment be arranged?

Where a parent with learning disabilities appears not to be able to meet the needs of their child a referral should be made to Children's Services in line with the Contacts and Referrals Procedure.

Children's Services will undertake a multi-disciplinary assessment using the Assessment Framework, and include input from Adult Services and other relevant agencies in a timely way. Referral to Adult Care Services

Specialist learning disability and other assessments are essential as a means to determine whether or not the parents require additional support to enable them to care for the child/young person or whether the level of learning disability is such that it will impair the health or development of the child/young person. Assessments involving families affected by parental learning disability should always include specialist input concerning the impact of a parent’s learning disability.

All agencies must recognise that their primary concern is to ensure the promotion of the child's/young person’s welfare, including their protection.

It is important that services understand who is to take the lead on assessments:

  • Where there are no welfare concerns but adults need assistance with routine tasks of looking after children, Adult Disability services should take the lead on assessment and care planning;
  • Where parents need support in the medium to long term Adult Disability and Children's Services  will jointly co-ordinate assessment and care planning;
  • Where intervention is required to prevent children/young people suffering impairment to their health or development or significant harm, Children's Services will lead the assessment and planning with input from Adult Disability services.

It is important for support needs to be recognised at the earliest opportunity. If possible, identification of needs should start when a pregnancy is confirmed. Where pre-birth involvement is a result of the mother’s learning disabilities and and there is uncertainty as to her ability to meet the needs of the child/young person once born, the Court of Appeal in D (A Child) [2021] EWCA Civ 787[EP1] stressed the importance of effective planning during the pregnancy for the baby’s arrival, and of taking adequate steps to ensure that the mother understands what is happening and receive support to enable self-advocacy.

See Pre-Birth Protocol, Procedure and Guidance for Pre-Birth Assessment Procedure.

It is vital to recognise low levels of need, which, if unaddressed, are likely to lead to difficulties for parents and undermine the children's/young people’s welfare. It is particularly important to avoid the situation where poor standards of parental care subsequently deteriorate because of a lack of support provided to the parent.

Please see National Eligibility Criteria. Care Act 2014.

Where Section 47 Enquiries conclude that there is no actual or likely significant harm, it is critical that Early Help pathways are followed to support the child/young person and family effectively. 

If any worker has concerns about a child/young person whose parents have learning difficulties and/or disabilities, please contact our Families First Portal.

There is an obligation to offer practical support to enable parents to meet their parenting responsibilities. However, this obligation does not extend to support that is tantamount to substituted parenting. See: A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) [2017] EWFC B94 highlighted the question of whether the parenting that can be offered is good enough if support is provided.

The case identified five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities:

  • Reasonable adjustments such as accessible information and communication;
  • Clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures and processes, eligibility criteria and care pathways;
  • Support designed to meet the needs of parents and children/young people based on assessments of their needs and strengths;
  • Long-term support where necessary;
  • Access to independent advocacy particularly in relation to child protection cases. This should be at the earliest opportunity.

The case also highlighted the need for:

Training – specialist training should be available on how to assess and support parents with a learning disability. The Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability should be an essential part of the continuation training for social workers and managers. (See Further Information).

Accessible information and communication:

Communication – communicating with parents should always be in a way they understand.

This may include:

  • Taking more time to explain things; and any written information should be provided in an accessible form for the parent;
  • Telling parents things more than once and checking their understanding of what has been said;
  • Considering in advance how best to prepare for meetings, and discussing with parents what would be helpful for them and involving the advocate in these discussions;
  • Visual aids to support with parenting such as pictures, short films;
  • Specialist support from a speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, and /or psychologist who can advise on the parent’s needs and how best information can be given. They can also advise on suitable learning strategies which may enhance the parent’s ability to learn.

Parents need to understand what any assessment is, what it is for, what it will involve, and what will happen afterwards. This information should be provided in an accessible format and may need to be repeated if there are any memory or cognitive issues. 

The Family Court in XX, YY and Child H (Rev1) [2022] EWFC 10 stated that, in incidents where a parent has a learning disability:

  • There should be timely referrals to adult social care for a parent with learning disability, without a very lengthy gap after a referral;
  • Parents with learning disability involved with Children’s Services where a child/young person is on a child protection plan should have their own advocate as a priority. A referral for that service should be made as soon as is practicable; and
  • The support available to a parent with learning disability should be distilled into a simple document identifying what is available, how often it is available, timescales for its availability and who is responsible for its delivery. Such a document should be shared with Children’s Services (if involved) and discussed with a parent in the presence of their advocate.

Accessible information

Information about universal services made available to parents and prospective parents should be in formats suitable for people with learning disabilities. This may include:

  • Easy Read versions of leaflets, avoiding the use of jargon;
  • Audio and/or visual information;
  • Fully accessible websites;
  • Creating opportunities to tell people with learning disabilities, face-to-face, about services for parents and parents-to-be;
  • ‘Word banks’ of words that parents can read and understand, to be used in written communications with the parents.

Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability (Working Together with Parents Network) identifies the following:

  • Self-directed learning can bring about long-term improvement in parenting skills;
  • Group education combined with home-based intervention is more effective than either home-based intervention or a group education programme on its own;
  • Parents with learning disabilities value both advocacy services and those which support self-advocacy;
  • Good co-ordination and communication between childrens and adult services is key to effective interventions;
  • Preventative approaches are key to safeguarding and promoting childrens/young people’s welfare;
  • Interventions should build on parents' strengths as well as addressing their vulnerabilities;
  • Interventions should be based on performance rather than knowledge and should incorporate modelling, practice, feedback and praise;
  • Tangible rewards may promote attendance at programmes, rapid acquisition of skills and short-term commitment;
  • Other methods of engagement are needed long term;
  • Intensive service engagement is more effective than intermittent service engagement;
  • Programmes should be adapted to the actual environment in which the skills are needed in order to enable parents to generalise their learning;
  • Teaching should be in the home if possible and if not, in as home-like an environment as possible;
  • Factors in the family's environment which promote children's/young people’s resilience should be identified and enhanced;
  • The importance of family ties (for most – though not all – parents and their children) should be recognised and no actions taken that damage such ties;
  • Interventions should increase the family's experience of social inclusion rather than cause or contribute to their social exclusion.

Last Updated: December 7, 2023