Working together to support disabled parents

Case 3: Couple with learning difficulties

Without an inter-agency protocol in place

A young couple with a 10-month-old baby both have learning difficulties. The mother also has a physical impairment which has worsened since the baby's birth and now requires her to walk with a stick. Members of the extended family looked after the child for short periods while the mother was in hospital having an operation on her leg. They are now offering to take the child on a longer-term fostering or adoption basis. The parents are opposed to this idea and have made it clear that they want to look after their own child although they know they will need help to do this.

Social services propose that the child should attend a full-time nursery placement. It is also proposed that the family attends an assessment centre with a view to determining their parenting capacity before determining whether the child will be better off staying with them or being brought up by relatives.

The couple are not happy with the idea that their child will be in the full-time nursery place as they feel he is too young to be away from home all day. In addition, they feel that these arrangements did not support them in their commitment to learn to be good parents and that the visit to the assessment centre will not teach them to cope in their own home over time. Specialist learning disability adult social workers are also concerned that the arrangements will not give them adequate opportunity to learn and demonstrate new parenting skills.

With an inter-agency protocol in place

When the relatives first approach social services to talk about the option of adopting or long-term fostering, a family group conference is arranged and the couple are referred to a local advocacy service. At the family group conference the couple - with support from their advocate - make clear their desire to learn to be good parents and extended family members enter into a contract with them to help them to do this. Children’s services carry out a full assessment, in partnership with the adult learning disability team. A family support worker is allocated to the couple who visits them on a regular basis to observe them and encourage them in playing with and looking after their child. The family support worker also anticipates the future learning support that the parents will need in order to be able to meet the child’s developing needs. The housing department is also involved in re-housing the family in a ground-floor property close to schools and shops so that unsuitable housing will not prove a barrier to good parenting.

In the first scenario there was a real danger that the difficulties the mother had experienced would lead to the couple losing the opportunity to learn good parenting skills and look after their own child. The arrangements made as a result of having an inter-agency protocol in place give them the time and support (including practical support with housing) that they need and also reassure family members that the couple will be adequately supported and able to look after their child, and that their own role in this will be facilitated.