A learning disability is a permanent life-long condition, which is defined by the Department of Health as:
- A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence);
- A reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning), which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development.
However, many people who have a diagnosed learning disability prefer to use the term 'learning difficulty'. They feel that the term 'learning disability' implies that they cannot learn at all.
There is a far wider group of parents with learning difficulties, who do not have a diagnosis and would not generally fit the eligibility criteria for support services in their own right. These parents often recognise that they need practical support and help to enable them to learn to be the best parents possible.
There is no direct link between IQ and parenting ability above the IQ level of 60. Parents with learning difficulties face a wide range of barriers to bringing up their children successfully.
The needs of parents with learning difficulties could include the ability to meet a child's needs, as well as their own; personal care of the child; preparation of meals and drinks; attending to the child's health needs; managing the child's safety, parental involvement in indoor and outdoor play; support in education.
- Does the child take on roles and responsibilities within the home that are inappropriate?
- Does the parent/carer neglect their own and their child's physical and emotional needs?
- Does the learning difficulty result in chaotic structures within the home with regard to meal and bedtimes, etc.?
- Is there a lack of the recognition of safety for the child?
- Does the parent/carer misuse alcohol or other substances?
- Does the parent/carer's learning difficulty have implications for the child within school, attending health appointments etc?
- Does the parent/carer's learning difficulty result in them rejecting or being unavailable to the child?
- Does the child witness acts of violence or is the child subject to violence?
- Does the wider family understand the learning disability of the parent/carer, and the impact of this on the parent/carer's ability to meet the child's needs?
- Is the wider family able and willing to support the parent/carer so that the child's needs are met?
- Does culture, ethnicity, religion or any other factor relating to the family have implications on their understanding of the learning disability and the potential impact on the child?
- How the family functions, including conflict, potential family break up etc.
- Is the parent/carer vulnerable to being exploited by other people e.g. financially, providing accommodation?
- Does the parent/carer have difficulty developing and sustaining relationships or have relationships that may present a risk to the child?
- Does the parent have a limited understanding of the child's needs and development including pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for an infant?
- Does the parent/carer have poor parenting experiences from their own parents as a child?
- Does the parent/carer have difficulty accessing health care and other support for themselves or the child?
Professionals within assessments must recognise that a learning disability is a lifelong condition. Assessments must therefore consider the implications for the child as they develop throughout childhood and will need to re-evaluate from time to time. Children may exceed their parent's intellectual and social functioning at a relatively young age.
Parents with learning difficulties are at risk of falling through the gap between the provision of services for children and the provision of services for adults, if they fail to coordinate effectively. As a result, some parents may miss out on support services that they need in order to prevent problems from arising.
The context in which people with learning disabilities have children is one that has been dominated by the perception of risk and the assumption that parenting will not be good enough. Adults with learning disabilities may need support to develop the understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their children. This will be particularly necessary if they are experiencing additional difficulties such as domestic violence, poor physical or mental health, having a disabled child, substance misuse, social isolation, poor housing or poverty.
Neglect through acts of omission rather than commission is a frequently stated concern, ultimately it is the quality of care experienced by the child which determines whether the parenting capacity can be regarded as sufficient.
The Parenting Assessment Manual may be used to assess parenting capacity in these circumstances. This involves the assessment of child care and development, behaviour management, independent living skills, safety and hygiene, parents' health, relationships and support, and the impact of the environment and community on parenting. Early intervention teams have staff trained to undertake these assessments.
Parents with learning difficulties may need long-term support, which will need to change and adapt as the developmental needs of a child changes as they grow.
Undertaking a CAF may be the best way to identify families strengths and weaknesses and highlight unmet needs which can facilitate referral to appropriate support services
Resources will need to be adapted to work with parents who may find it difficult to use written information. Advice may need to be sought from specialist workers with expertise in adult learning difficulties. They may face a multiplicity of other difficulties and there is the potential for a wide range of professionals to be involved in their lives.
The safeguarding system can appear very daunting for parents with learning difficulty, and consideration should therefore be given to supporting them throughout this process.