It is difficult to comment on the specific rights or wrongs of the Essex case and the judgment itself reveals that the case is not as clear cut as the Mail's campaign suggests. But what is certain is that the couple's plight is not an uncommon one among parents with a learning disability.
Some estimates suggest that there are up to 250,000 parents with a learning disability. Many receive no paid support whatsoever – either because of the barriers to accessing that support or for fear that a request for help may be seen as an admission of failure which may lead to their children being taken away. An audit of Newcastle’s child protection register found that nearly 50% of the 296 children on the register had at least one parent with a learning disability.
In 2004 Professor Tim Booth and Wendy Booth completed a two-year investigation for Sheffield University on parents with a learning disability who were involved in care proceedings.
The research, based on the care proceedings of two large courts in England, found that:
- Neglect was the most common professional concern leading to a care application.
- Five main factors were said to influence the outcome of cases involving parents with a learning disability, including: lack of insight, parental non-compliance and degree of risk.
- For most parents, communication remained a one-way street and most felt they were not listened to.
- Most parents struggled to understand what was happening in meetings.
- Few parents said they had been advised by their social worker about their legal rights, where to obtain advice, how to find a solicitor or what help might be available to them once the decision had been taken to pursue a care application.
Professor Booth believes that one of the many reasons why so many parents with a learning disability are forced to go through court proceedings is because they have not been given a fair hearing earlier on in the investigations. One of Booth's recommendations is a full review of parents’ access to advice, advocacy and support during child care investigations before cases even come to court.
Mencap’s chief executive, Dame Jo Williams, agrees but believes the media’s handling of the case has muddled two quite separate issues – child protection and parenting capacity. “The question that the Daily Mail and Tim Booth pose is, are the authorities entering child protection proceedings with preconceived ideas about parents with a learning disability? If they are, then that is unacceptable. I know and work with many people with a learning disability who have made and continue to be excellent parents.”
A lot of professionals think that if you have a learning disability you can’t look after your kids Shaun Webster, Fighting for our children
The number of organisations providing support for parents with a learning disability is rising steadily. Change has produced a range of accessible materials for parents with a learning disability. Since 2002 it has been running a Department of Health-funded project, Fighting for our children.
Shaun Webster, a co-worker on the project who has learning disabilities and is the father of three children, explains, “The campaign was a spin-off from a project to produce a parenting pack. We wanted to change people's attitudes – a lot of professionals think that if you have a learning disability you can’t look after your kids.”
Jo Williams believes good practice would be to carry out a proper evaluation, not just of the family and short term needs around health and safety, but also the community in which they live. Assessing parenting ability would be part of that wider process. She says Mencap wants to see:
- Fair assessments
- Wider recognition among the public and statutory authorities that people with a learning disability can be good parents.
- Parents with a learning disability being given appropriate and sustained support if they need it.
Until this happens, she argues, parents with a learning disability will continue to feel that they are on their own in their efforts to raise their children to be happy and healthy adults.