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One in three parents at risk of having their babies removed from their care have learning disabilities or difficulties – often not identified until court

A new study 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. Their disabilities or difficulties are often not being identified until cases reach court, and so support has not been adapted for their needs.

For the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory study, 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. This prevalence varied by local authority area (from 44% in a county area to 22% in a London borough) – consistent with Public Health England evidence on the varying rates of adults with learning disabilities within the whole population across different parts of England.

Despite this prevalence – and despite a high proportion (81%) of babies having been referred to children’s social care during their mother’s pregnancy, most in the first and second trimester – 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. 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.

All 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 (Section 20 Equality Act, 2010). 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, resources would be wasted and care proceedings might also be delayed (in the cases analysed, the average length of proceedings was 39 weeks and, in 76% of cases, the proceedings needed to be extended beyond 26 weeks).

In the cases examined, parenting support was very inconsistently or insufficiently adjusted for parents with learning disabilities or learning difficulties, particularly in cases involving pre-birth work with parents – such as how to develop or maintain healthy relationships, emotional stability, baby attachment, baby brain development, or making practical preparations for the baby’s arrival. While there was much more evidence that adjustments were being made within actual care proceedings, it was usually only after a cognitive assessment and/or court intermediary assessment had been undertaken, which meant they often only helped parents at a final hearing stage.

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.


Lisa Harker, director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said:

“The number of babies being removed from their families has been rising for many years. 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. 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, Institute of Public Care at Oxford Brookes University, said:

“The professionals involved in our study agreed that assessing parents’ learning difficulties during court proceedings was far too late and that there were missed opportunities to identify them at an earlier stage – but that costs, combined with insufficient training, experience, authority or time, were a barrier.

“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.”