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One in three parents at risk of having babies removed have learning difficulties

A new study finds that a significant number of parents with babies involved in care proceedings have learning disabilities or learning difficulties, with as many as three-quarters not identified until after the court process has begun.

19/06/24

One in three parents at risk of having babies removed have learning difficulties

A new study has highlighted the prevalence of learning disabilities and learning difficulties among parents with babies involved in care proceedings.

The study, carried out for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) suggests that parents with learning disabilities or learning difficulties whose babies are involved in care proceedings are often missing the chance to access and meaningfully engage in pre-birth services that might help them to develop or prove their parenting abilities.

Researchers at the Institute of Public Care at Oxford Brookes University examined 200 care proceedings cases involving babies (children under one year old) across four different local authority areas, and interviewed professionals and parents. They found that in one third (34%) of the cases one or more of the parents involved had learning disabilities or learning difficulties. The prevalence of one or more parents with a learning disability or difficulty varied across the country – with up to 44% in county areas and to 22% in a London borough.

Worryingly, in approximately three quarters of the reviewed children’s case files, parents’ learning disabilities or learning difficulties had not been identified until their cases reached court. Researchers added that it was concerning as these disabilities or difficulties were often not being identified earlier, as this will have affected their support which will not have been adapted for their needs.

Professionals of all types interviewed as part of the study thought this was far too late and that there were missed opportunities to identify learning disabilities or learning difficulties at an earlier stage.

The study also suggested that parents are often already known to services. Nearly half (49%) of the mothers and 28% of the fathers were known to have older children already in care. Just over half (51%) of the mothers and just under a quarter (24%) of the fathers were known to have been in care or to have been the subject of a statutory child protection or child in need plan themselves as children.

Current legislation mandates that public bodies, including local authorities and courts, are required to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that people with disabilities are not put at a substantial disadvantage, but late identification of parental learning disabilities or learning difficulties mean that key parenting assessments and parenting support services are very unlikely to be tailored to parents’ learning needs.

The professionals interviewed considered that in these circumstances parents were less likely to be engaged effectively in pre-proceedings work and resources would be wasted.

Researchers warned that late identification also meant care proceedings might also be delayed. In the cases analysed, the average length of proceedings was 39 weeks and, in more than three quarters (76%) of cases, the proceedings needed to be extended beyond 26 weeks.

“Uncovering that such a significant proportion of the parents in these cases are likely to have learning disabilities or difficulties has a profound impact on how we should be thinking about the type of support they need,” Lisa Harker, Director of NFJO, said.

“The pre-proceedings period is a vital chance for parents to learn or prove their parenting ability, and if these services are not being adapted to meet the needs of people with learning disabilities or difficulties then we could be looking at a serious injustice.”

“Parents more widely are already facing delayed support before their baby’s birth and court hearings commencing at very short notice, both of which impact their chance to show they can safely care for their children – this research suggests that parents with learning disabilities or difficulties are facing additional barriers.”

Professor Katy Burch, who led on the research, said that the professionals involved in the study agreed that assessments for parents’ learning difficulties happening during court proceedings was ‘far too late’ and that there were missed opportunities to identify them at an earlier stage.

She added that the research showed the main barriers to earlier identification included the costs for local authorities in getting an assessment completed earlier and social workers not having the right training, experience, authority, or time to screen effectively or to trigger a further in-depth assessment.

“Our research has shown that the clock is ticking for parents to prove that they can provide good enough care for their child from the moment of referral to children’s social care until court. In advance of their child’s birth, this could mean more tailored support is required depending on individual needs.”

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