This judgment is not binding upon anyone not directly involved in the case, being a decision of a Circuit Judge, His Honour Judge Dancey.
But I think that it provides a very accessible summary of the guidance on working with parents with learning disabilities and also it contains within in a judgment that is written directly for the parents, which I’ll set out below.
The central issues in the case were – were the assessments fair and did they properly take account of the guidance AND if the parents needed X hours of services a day (in this case said to be 12-16 hours per day) ought they be given that to keep the family together or is that an unrealistic expectation?
A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) (Rev 1)  EWFC B94
Speaking as a Local Authority lawyer, cases involving learning disabilities are the very hardest cases to deal with – you are dealing with parents who have absolutely no intention to harm or mistreat a child and are doing their absolute best – usually by the end of the case the parent could have done nothing more to show the Court their love and desire to parent. Yet so often they have unhappy endings, often this being more common than cases where parents have behaved selfishly, foolishly or abusively but have the ability and wherewithal to stop doing that. It feels like there should be something for these parents, who have done nothing wrong other than to demonstrate that they have limitations outside of their control. I don’t know what that something should be, and I have no idea what that something would cost, (as my friend Becca Carr-Hopkins is fond of saying to me “and what would that LOOK like?”) but they are the very worst hearings to do.
I would rather have four awful paedophile cases than a case where the parents have tried their best but their best is not enough because of the disability they were born with. People who have already had a difficult hand dealt to them in life, who have to be told that although they are not bad people and have all the love in the world the State is about to make their painful and difficult life still more painful and difficult. I wish central Government would make funding available so that there could be something to properly support parents of this kind.
Anyway, I’ll start with the portion of the judgment written directly for the parents – I have praised Jackson LJ in the past for doing this and it is nice to see his lead being followed
1.C and D have two children, K aged just 3 years and T aged nearly 20 months. C also has an older child A whose father died when she was 3.
2.The local authority say that C and D cannot look after the children well enough.
3.Sadly C has a learning disability and is partly deaf. This means that she struggles to look after the children. D doesn’t have a disability. He is C’s carer. He has not really supported C to look after the children as he should have done.
4.A has already gone to live with Mr and Mrs N. They are now her special guardians. A is happy there and wants to stay. C and D accept that. They are not asking for A to come home.
5.The local authority ask me to make orders putting K and T in their care. They also ask to be allowed to place K and T for adoption. That would mean ending K and T’s ties and contact with C and D completely. They would become members of a new family.
6.C and D don’t agree. They say they could look after K and T if they were supported properly.
7.I accept that C and D couldn’t look after the children as well as they should. I am not going to write down here everything I have heard about. But K and T have not been looked after properly. C and D did not watch out for K and T well enough. Also they did not have good routines. Sometimes they were dirty and missed out on meals. But also C and D found it difficult to get in tune with K and T’s emotional needs. Sometimes they didn’t pay them much attention. K got frustrated. She banged her head and bit people. T didn’t cry much or demand much attention. This was because he wasn’t getting much attention.
8.A had to look after K and T more than she should have. It was like she became a parent to them. She also worried about C. These were things a child shouldn’t have to worry about. A thinks she has lost out on some of her childhood.
9.I know that C and D looked after A well enough. But I think she had to start looking after herself when K and T came along. C and D cannot look after two very young children. They have different needs which C and D struggle with.
10.The local authority tried to help C and D with support. C and D didn’t think all the support was of the right kind. I agree the local authority could have done this better. The people who worked with C and D needed more training about learning disability. D could have done with more help as C’s carer. He could have helped himself more too.
11.C and D both had depression. I think that was a lot to do with the stress of trying to look after three children. Their depression has got better since they have not had the children. They have made some improvements too. The flat looks very nice now. It used to be cluttered and wasn’t very clean.
12.The problem is that C can’t meet the needs of the children on her own. D doesn’t give her the support she needs. I don’t think C or D really understand how worried the local authority are. I know they want to work with people to make things better. But I don’t think C or D can really change things in a lasting way even with support. I think if the children come home things will get worse again. C and D will probably get too stressed. And that might mean they get depressed again.
13.I have decided that the children need care that C and D cannot give them. They would need so much support that other people would end up parenting K and T instead of C and D. K and T would not know who is their main carer. That would probably cause them problems in how they make relationships.
14.So I have decided I cannot let the children come home. It means that I must make an order putting K and T in the care of the local authority. I must also let them place K and T for adoption.
15.It is very sad to have to make this decision. I know how much C and D love their children. They have come to court every day. They have listened carefully and patiently. They have tried their very best to help me. I thank them very much indeed. The children will know that C and D did their very best to keep them.
16.But I have to decide what is best for the children. And I have decided that nothing else will do.
The judgment also provides a very clear and helpful summary of both the law and the practical guidance, and I think it is a really good source for this
Parents with learning disability/Parenting with support
35.Where a parent has a learning disability the court must make sure that parent is not being disadvantaged simply because of their disability. The essential question is whether the parenting that can be offered is good enough if support is provided. In Re D (A Child) (No 3)  EWFC 1 Munby P endorsed and recommended what was said by Gillen J in Re Guardian and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability)  NIFam 8. Those cases establish a number of important points relevant in this case:
i) Parents with learning difficulties can often be ‘good enough’ parents when provided with the ongoing emotional and practical support they need.
ii) The concept of ‘parenting with support’ must underpin the way in which courts and professionals approach parents with learning difficulties.
iii) Courts must make sure that parents with learning difficulties are not at risk of having their parental responsibilities terminated on the basis of evidence that would not hold up against parents without such difficulties. To that end parents with learning disability should not be measured against parents without disability and the court should be alive to the risk of direct and indirect discrimination.
iv) Multi-agency working is critical if parents are to be supported effectively and the court has a duty to make sure that has been done effectively.
v) The court should not focus so narrowly on the child’s welfare that the needs of the parent arising from their disability, and impacting on their parenting capacity, are ignored.
vi) Courts should be careful to ensure that the supposed inability of the parents to change is not itself an artefact of professionals’ ineffectiveness in engaging with the parents in an appropriate way.
36.Ms Harman says there are some features of this case that distinguish it favourably from Re D – (a) these parents cared for A for some years without concerns about her care (so there is a history of childcare that did not exist in Re D) (b) there have been no concerns about the children’s development and they have met milestones and (c) these parents are keen to accept advice and support.
37.Ms Harman also refers me to Kent County Council v A Mother  EWHC 402 recognising (a) that parents with learning disability need to be supported and enabled to lead their lives as full members of the community, free from discrimination and prejudice, (b) a wider acceptance that people with learning disability may in many cases, with assistance, be able to bring up children successfully, (c) the need for professionals working with families and children to be trained to recognise and deal with parents with learning disabilities and (d) the need for Government Guidance to be followed.
Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (updated September 2016) DoH/DfES
38.The Good Practice Guidance was issued to address a lack of evidence of effective joint working between adult and children’s services. I gratefully adopt and adapt the summary of the Guidance set out by Ms Harman in her written submissions:
i) Services need to help enable children live with their parents (as long as this is consistent with their welfare) by providing the support they and their families require. This accords with the general duty of local authorities under section 17(1) of the 1989 Act to provide a range and level of services to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need and their upbringing by their families (insofar as it is consistent with their welfare).
ii) Good practice is also underpinned by an approach to parenting and learning disability which addresses needs relating to both impairment and the disabling barriers of unequal access and negative attitudes. Such an approach recognises that:
… If the problem is seen as entirely related to impairment and personal limitations, it is difficult to understand how to bring about positive changes for parents and their children.
… If the focus is, instead, on things that can be changed (such as inadequate housing) and support needs that can be met (such as equipment to help a parent measure baby feeds), there are many more possibilities for bringing about positive improvements. [p4]
iii) There are five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities: [pii]
• 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 based on assessments of their needs and strengths
• long-term support where necessary
• access to independent advocacy
iv) Adult and children’s services, and health and social care, should jointly agree local protocols for referrals, assessments and care pathways in order to respond appropriately and promptly to the needs of both parents and children. [1.2.1, p8].
v) 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 learning disability services should take the lead on assessment and care planning
• where parents need support in the medium to long term adult learning disability and children’s services jointly co-ordinate assessment and care planning
• where intervention is required to prevent children suffering impairment to their health or development or significant harm, children’s services lead assessment and planning with specialised input from adult learning disability services (1.2.5 p12).
vi) Services in contact with parents with learning disabilities should use appropriate assessment materials and resources and/or access specialist expertise. Failing to do so will result in the parent receiving an unfair and therefore invalid assessment, in breach of their legal rights. [1.2.6, p13].
vii) Where a parent has a learning disability it will be important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. Having a learning disability does not mean that a person cannot learn new skills. [p13].
viii) In the case of parent support services, an assessment of a parent’s learning needs and circumstances should inform the support provided to develop parenting skills. Research indicates that – for parents with learning disabilities – the key elements of successful parenting skills support are:
… clear communication, and ensuring parents have understood what they are told
… use of role-play, modelling, and videoing parent and professional undertaking a task together, for discussion, comparison and reflection
… step by step pictures showing how to undertake a task
… repeating topics regularly and offering opportunities for frequent practice
… providing/developing personalised “props”: for example, finding a container which will hold the right amount of milk for the child so that the parent does not have to measure out the milk. [p16]
ix) A range of services is required. All families are different and at different stages of their life cycle families require different types of support. [1.3.3, p16]
x) A need for long-term support does not mean that parents cannot look after their children. [1.4.1, p20]
xi) Although a parent with learning disabilities can learn how to do things, their cognitive impairment will not go away. Just as someone with a physical impairment may need personal assistance for the rest of their life so a person with learning disabilities may need assistance with daily living, particularly as new situations arise. Secondly, children and their needs change. A parent may have learned to look after a baby and young child and be coping well. However, as the child enters adolescence other support needs may arise. [p21]
xii) Where a need for long-term support with parenting tasks is identified, it should form part of the community care and/or child in need plan. [1.4.2, p21]
xiii) Advocacy and self-advocacy should be made available to help parents access and engage with services. The Care Act 2014 imposes a duty on local authorities to provide an independent advocate where an individual would otherwise have substantial difficulties in being involved in processes such as their own assessment and care planning. [p22]
xiv) The Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on local authorities to make reasonable adjustments so as to eliminate discrimination and to advadvance equality of opportunity; the provision of an independent advocate may assist with this. The Human Rights Act 1998 entitles a parent to participate fully in the process; this includes stages prior to any formal legal proceedings being initiated. [p22]
xv) It is particularly important to avoid the situation where poor standards of parental care, which do not, however, meet the threshold of being of significant harm to a child, subsequently deteriorate because of a lack of support provided to the parent. A failure to provide support in this type of situation can undermine a parent’s rights to a private and family life, and may also contravene an authority’s disability equality duty. [p25]
xvi) Families affected by parental learning disability are likely to have an on-going need for support. [p27]
xvii) When children are placed in foster care, parents should receive practical support to maximise their chances of improving their parenting capacity. Without this, parents will have little chance of reunification with children who have been removed from their care. [2.2.12, p29]
xviii) Both children’s and adult workers will need specific training in order to respond appropriately to the needs of families affected by parental learning disability. Child protection training strategies should include adult learning disability services. [p38]
xix) It is essential that assessments, training and support are both timely and appropriately tailored to the parent with a learning disability. Failure to build in, from the outset, the extra time that a parent with a learning disability needs in order to learn and understand, puts that parent at a significant disadvantage in child protection proceedings, compared to parents without a learning disability. [piii]
xx) There must also be joint working across all the agencies (in particular adult and children’s services) and appropriate and effective communication permitting parents to participate fully in the process. [piii]
Turning now to the case in question, the Judge did uphold several of the criticisms made by the parents of the assessments and support
Discussion and conclusion
215.There is in my judgement considerable force in the criticisms made by Ms Harman of the assessments of the parents and the support given to them. In particular:
◦the local authority does not have, as it should, a protocol for dealing with parents with learning disability (or not one that the professionals were able to tell me about, which amounts to the same thing) and that reflects in the approach in this case;
◦a protocol would focus on the Guidance which has not always been followed in this case – and to describe the Guidance as a ‘counsel of perfection’ is to give a charter to ignore it which should be robustly challenged;
◦those working with the mother should have been trained in dealing with parents with learning disability which would have given them better direct understanding during assessment and teaching how best to work with her and how to deliver the right support;
◦I do not consider it necessary to have had somebody from the ALDT present at every session; what was required was sufficient training of those that were there (and not just reliance on their experience of dealing with people with learning disability);
◦there has not been enough focus in this case on planned support and a positive strategy to try and keep this family together:
◦rather LW’s focus (see paragraph 193(h)(v) above) was on a solution for the children within their timescales rather than supporting the parents – the two are not necessarily inconsistent if support is provided in a timely and efficient manner;
◦in fact there were unacceptable delays in carrying out assessments and establishing what support was needed, creating a conflict with the children’s timescales;
◦JT said that the parents had not put forward proposals as to the actual support the various agencies could offer – this ignores that it is the local authority which should be making an assessment of the support that can be offered and that should include what is available from outside agencies as well as inhouse support;
◦there could and should have been more focus on repetitive teaching using role-modelling and example as recommended by Dr K (I accept the health visitor used these techniques but there was little hard evidence of it in the FAST work);
◦a more co-ordinated response to the father’s evident need as a carer of the mother should have been put into effect earlier with a support package rather than leaving him to his own devices;
◦work with the parents should have continued after the children were removed not least to assess whether they were making necessary changes;
◦it was unfortunate that, as in many cases, these parents have had to deal with a number of different social workers, five in this case – that has an impact both on the need for vulnerable parents to re-build new relationships with professionals before and during stressful proceedings and professionals’ continuity of knowledge and experience of the family.
216.Having accepted those criticisms I also accept the following points:
◦all the professionals did their best;
◦the Guidance was followed to the extent that Children’s Services took the lead and consulted with the ALDT as the specialist service;
◦the FAST workers and social workers sought to follow the advice given by the ALDT about how best to work with the mother;
◦the materials they used – picture books and charts – were not in themselves inappropriate, particularly given the presence in the home of the father and his supposed ability to support the mother – it is just that more was needed by way of direct example and repetition;
◦lots of support has in fact been given to the family as set out by Mr Howard, I just question whether it might have been more structured and planned had the Guidance been followed and a protocol been in place;
217.I do not see that the criticisms are met simply by saying that one of the parents did not have disability. The fact is, as this case shows, that whenever working with a parent with a learning disability, the Guidance should be followed.
There’s only one part of the judgment that I don’t quite agree with, and that’s here
248.I do not read Re D or the Guidance as requiring local authorities to provide support to the extent that it amounts to substitute parenting. If a parent had such a physical disability as to require substitute parenting then I would expect the result to be the same, so I would not accept that this conclusion is discriminatory of parents with learning disability.
The first bit, I think is absolutely right – I don’t think Re D or the Guidance says that a Local Authority has to provide the sort of support that means that really a parent is not providing any real parenting but the parenting is being done by professionals and support agencies with the parents just being present. It is the comparator with physical disabilities I am not sure about.
If a parent had such a physical disability as to require substitute parenting then I would expect the result to be the same, so I would not accept that this conclusion is discriminatory of parents with learning disability
I don’t know. If a parent was blind, and needed another adult in the home to ensure that the child wasn’t putting themselves in harms way, would a Local Authority be issuing care proceedings because the blind parent doesn’t have another adult in the home? Would threshold even be met on that basis? I think it is wrong, repugnant even that there is a two-tier approach between physical disability and learning disability, but I do think that there is one.