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Local authorities and learning disabled parenting (A Local Authority v CG and others)

Date:18 JAN 2018
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Local Government analysis: A case concerning the parental suitability of two parents with mental health and learning difficulties offers a number of lessons that can help local authorities to better manage such challenging circumstances. Emma Harman, counsel for the mother, and Omar Malik, for the father, both of 3 Paper Buildings, outline the most salient issues for practitioners and local authorities to be aware of.

Original news

In A Local Authority v CG and others [2017] Lexis Citation 446, [2018] All ER (D) 29 (Jan) the Family Court ruled that the needs of two young children could only be met by placement for adoption, as the parents were not able to meet their needs and it followed that their welfare required that the parents’ consent to the placement be dispensed with. The Family Court further made a 12-month supervision order as sought and unopposed in respect of the children’s half-sister aged 12.

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What was the background?

The court was predominantly concerned with two children, aged three and 19 months (the living arrangements for the eldest child, aged 12, having been agreed outside of the family). The local authority’s application was for care and placement orders in respect of both children, which was supported by the guardian. The parents opposed the orders sought.

The mother of the children had a mild learning disability with an IQ of 57 and was partly deaf in both ears. The mother’s learning disability directly impacted upon her ability to care for the children unaided and to be able to undertake daily tasks without assistance. The mother required continuous support to meet the children’s needs. She was unable to undertake many tasks unprompted. She was unable to tell the time and she did not know when to feed the children. She could not cook the children meals unassisted. She had also suffered some difficulties with depression.

The father did not have any disability and was registered as the mother’s carer. He too had suffered with depression over a number of years.

The court was tasked with deciding whether the children could safely be returned to the parents’ care under either a child arrangements order with a supervision order or under a care order, or whether their welfare demanded that they be placed outside of the family for adoption.

The local authority’s concerns were of chronic neglect.

What are the practical implications of this case?

This case raises the importance of local authorities complying with the Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability (updated September 2016) from the Department of Health/Department for Education. The guidance sets out clearly how local authorities should support and provide training to parents with learning disabilities and how such education should also continue after a child has gone into foster care.

A failure to adapt the way in which local authorities work with learning disabled parents could lead to a conclusion of discrimination as a result of the parents being put at a significant disadvantage in care proceedings compared to parents without any disability.

The case is a reminder that parents with learning difficulties can often be good enough parents when provided with appropriately tailored support.

What did the court decide and how, considering this, might it affect practitioners in the way they advise their clients?

The court decided on care and placement orders. The judge said there was considerable force in the criticisms made on behalf of the mother of the assessments and the support provided. In particular:

  • the local authority did not have, as it should, a protocol for dealing with parents with a learning disability (or not one that the professionals were able to tell the court about, which amounts to the same thing) and that reflected in the approach within the case;
  • a protocol would focus on the guidance, which had not always been followed in this case – and to describe the guidance as a ‘counsel of perfection’ (the argument which was submitted on behalf of the guardian) 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 a learning disability (and not just reliance on their experience of dealing with people with a learning disability), which would have given them better direct understanding during assessment and teaching how best to work with the mother and how to deliver the right support;
  • there was not enough focus in the case on planned support and a positive strategy to try and keep the family together – instead, the parenting assessor’s focus was on a solution for the children within their timescales rather than supporting the parents. The judge said the two are not necessarily inconsistent if support is provided in a timely and efficient manner;
  • there were unacceptable delays in carrying out assessments and establishing what support was needed, creating a conflict with the children’s timescales;
  • it is wrong for the local authority to expect the parents to put forward proposals in respect of support they require. Instead, the judge said 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 in-house support;
  • there could and should have been more focus on repetitive teaching using role-modelling and examples;
  • 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 – this 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.

However, the judge found that the father lacked sufficient understanding of the mother’s needs and limitations, leaving him unable to bridge the gap in her parenting deficiencies, and so the level of support the family required would equate to substituted parenting. The judge said that unless the parents have a good enough understanding of why they need to change and what they need to do, the prospects of achieving real and necessary change are remote.

Furthermore, the judge was satisfied that the children needed attuned parenting which would repair the harm caused to them by neglect in their parents’ care. He found that parents were unable to parent at their level.

To read the full analysis, see LexisPSL Family here (subscription required). Click here to request a free 1-week trial