Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Too much support for parents with a learning disability could be harmful for children

Too much support for parents with a learning disability could be harmful and confusing for the children, according to a new report that explored ‘substituted parenting’.

The report, by researchers at the University of Bristol, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has sought to develop a common understanding of, and clarity about, the meaning and use of the term ‘substituted parenting’ by legal and social work professionals.

It also sought to understand how parents with learning disabilities understood the term, the associated risks and how to mitigate them.

As parents with learning disabilities/difficulties are overrepresented in the family courts, they are more than twice as likely to have their children removed, rather than supported to remain at home. The term ‘substituted parenting’ appears in family court judgments as the reason for removing the children.

However, published court judgments show no definition of the term or evidence of analysis of the perceived risk, or exploration of options to address that risk. This lack of clarity raised concerns regarding the fairness and transparency of the family court system in relation to cases involving parents with learning disabilities and led to the research study.

Permanent removal of children

The research highlights the importance of proper evidence and analysis when considering cases which could result in the permanent removal of children from their parents. Assertions that a package of support would be ‘substituted parenting ‘or ‘parenting by professionals’, must be evidence-based and specific to that family.

The research, with input from an advisory group made up of parents, also shows the need to ensure that the proceedings and the concerns held by professionals are as accessible as possible to parents, and that any support that is offered meets the needs of that individual family.

The research also found:

  • Parents recognised the need for support but found the term unhelpful
  • Professionals saw the term as derogatory, value laden and lacking clear definition
  • Professionals’ concerns about the [high] level of support were based on theoretical, rather than actual, support
  • Analysis of professionals’ concerns, whether about cost, duration, children’s needs changing, or other matters, was absent in practice

policy briefing lays out the main policy implications and recommendations for practice that arise from the research findings, in particular, ways for professionals to support rather than supplant parents. Key recommendations are made around the use of the term ‘substituted parenting’, the identification of options to address the perceived risk of the proposed support amounting to ‘substituted parenting’, attachment theory, long-term support, the use of labels or flags as indicators of need, the use of terminology, training and awareness.

Co-author Nadine Tilbury said: “Deciding that a child must be removed should be the end point, not the start point. Whatever the eventual outcome for the family, they are entitled to a fair process which excludes pre-judgment and includes proper consideration of options.”

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