Time to support parents with learning problems

Parents are still losing children over disabilities. Picture: TSPL
Parents are still losing children over disabilities. Picture: TSPL
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AS ENABLE Scotland prepares to enter its seventh decade in 2014, we acknowledge that in that time, much has changed to improve the lives of people who have learning disabilities. But a great deal more needs to be achieved in terms of changing cultures, behaviours and attitudes.

If I could highlight one particular area where attitudes and cultures need to be challenged it is parenting, because I believe there is still a prevalent preconceived notion that someone who has a learning disability cannot be a good parent.

Clearly the needs of the child must come first, however, research indicates that in many cases children’s needs can be met by parents who have learning disabilities with support tailored to the family. It is estimated that between 40 and 60 per cent of parents who have learning disabilities are not living with their children, but we need to undertake more research to confirm those figures and identify the reasons for them.

Children are still being removed from their parents based on disability alone, without a robust child-centred assessment and with limited support for the mother and father. I cannot help but feel this is the most basic infringement of human rights.

In June of this year the Scottish Government published it’s latest ten-year learning disability strategy - The Keys to Life. This strategy makes clear current policy in relation to parents with learning disabilities, and recognises that whilst policies such as the National Parenting Strategy, Getting It Right For Every Child and the Scottish Good Practice Guidelines for Supporting Parents with Learning Disabilities state that early intervention and the right sort of ongoing support should be available to families where there are parents with learning disabilities, we know that often the reality for these families is very different. The Keys to Life clearly states that “steps are therefore needed to improve the support available to these families”.

I know there are pockets of good practice around the country and many agencies have produced resources to support parents. The Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability has had an active interest in this issue for many years and has developed the Scottish Good Practice Guidelines for Supporting Parents with Learning Disabilities, with the ultimate aim of keeping these families together.

Unfortunately we still continue to hear of children being separated from their parents without adequate evidence that they are unable to be a good parent. When a child is removed from the parents, the decision must be evidence-based and should never be based on disability alone.

Good practice does exist and we need to learn from it. As a member of a local authority commissioning team, I was involved in a case where a child was in threat of being taken from his mother immediately following birth. There was no rationale for separating mother and child other than the mother’s disability and the anxiety of professionals. However with strong advocacy pushing for a robust support plan, tailored to the needs of the family, they remained together. Nine years later they are leading a loving, happy, healthy family life.

A number of current policy developments including the Public Bodies (Joint Working) (Scotland) Bill, the Keys to Life strategy and the Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill will give fresh impetus for health and social work to tailor greater support for parents who have learning disabilities, through a holistic approach with the child at the centre. We are preparing to lobby around the Children and Young People’s Bill to ensure that children of parents with disabilities have robust plans supporting their development, and their parents parenting skills.

I also believe there is scope for third sector organisations to look for innovative and creative ways of supporting parents and children of parents who have learning disabilities. The Scottish Government announced last year £18 million from the Early Years Change Fund for family support, and have recently confirmed that the remaining £6m of this fund has been allocated to support creative partnership approaches to developing family support services.

A key strategic aim for ENABLE Scotland is to develop innovative partnerships, possibly based on a Public Social Partnership (PSP) model – bringing together local authorities, third sector organisations and parents to develop services to support this vulnerable group of parents. We are making progress in terms of developing such partnerships in several areas of Scotland.

At ENABLE Scotland we have a new opportunity to employ an Early Years Research Officer, funded by the Scottish Government. This post will lead to in-depth research into the needs of parents and the support they need from third sector organisations and statutory agencies, and we will use this information to campaign for the right support to be put in place for this group of families.

Regardless of disability, people want many of the same things in life – to play an active role in their community, to be safe, to have a home, to work and earn money, to have friends and relationships and start a family. And while attitudes have evolved in general, one of the biggest challenges that still exist for people who have learning disabilities is the preconceived notion, predicated throughout our society, that because you have a learning disability you cannot be a good parent. Our 60th year will be a time to challenge attitudes, cultures and behaviours and raise awareness of the need for adequate support for parents to ensure that with the child at the centre, children and their parents can stay together wherever possible.

• Margaret Wheatley is executive director, campaigns and membership, of ENABLE Scotland


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