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Judge gives guidance on care cases where parent has learning disability

A Family Court judge has given guidance on care cases where a parent has a learning disability, after deciding that a 17-month-old boy known as Child H should be the subject of a care order pending adoption because of his parents’ inability to care for him.

In XX, YY and Child H (Rev1) [2022] EWFC 10 Mrs Justice Knowles said a plan devised by Nottinghamshire County Council should be implemented and she was satisfied she should dispense with the consent of H's parents.

She noted it should have been “blindingly obvious” that timely referrals to social care should be made for parents with learning difficulties.

Knowles J said: “His welfare requires that such an order should be made…I am also satisfied that the contact arrangements proposed by the local authority as amended are consistent with a H's welfare and in his best interests.”

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The judge added that she knew her decision “will be an enormous blow to H's parents. I do not underestimate the life changing consequences for H and for them of the orders that I have approved today.

“My decision is hugely and uniquely painful for H's parents but I ask them to support him in future with the love they so evidently have for him. I wish them the best for the future.”

After H was born hospital doctors and nurses became worried that the mother appeared distressed and sometimes confused.

They were also concerned, the court was told, that the mother was not managing to look after H despite nursing and medical advice and sometimes seemed aggressive towards staff.

When H was ready to be discharged, Nottinghamshire issued care proceedings because of concerns about the mother's ability to care for H.

The court heard the mother's overall level of cognitive ability fell within the extremely low range and suggested a significant and severe impairment of intellectual functioning which is unlikely to be resolved and was described as an arrested or incomplete development of the mind.

She had considerable difficulty in understanding what was said to her, and lacked the capacity to conduct the proceedings.

The father then submitted that he could care for H, although this would still have involved periods when H was left solely with his mother.

Nottinghamshire said the evidence demonstrated neither parent could meet H's needs whether he were placed with them individually or jointly.

It had assessed the father and “found him to be inconsistent in his approach to the mother's difficulties, sometimes accepting she needed a lot of help in her own right and as a parent, and then at other times not accepting this at all”.

Knowles J said the Official Solicitor had asked her to give guidance on cases where a parent has a learning disability.

Distilling the learning points from these proceedings, the judge said: 

"106. It is clear to me that learning about the Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability, first published in 2007 and then amended in 2016, and then again in 2021, should be more widely disseminated to both children and family social workers and adult social care workers. It must be an essential part of continuation training for such social workers and their managers. It was not in this case. That guidance should also be at the forefront of local authority planning. That would give intellectual focus and rigour to the evaluation of parental strengths and weaknesses in cases, whether before the courts or not. Cases which come before the courts involving a parent with learning disabilities should, as a matter of good practice, be capable of demonstrating that the guidance has been taken into account in any care planning or proposals put forward by a local authority.

107. There must be timely referrals to adult social care for a parent with learning difficulties in their own right and, when I say a timely referral, that means a referral accompanied by meaningful social work, not a referral followed by a very lengthy gap. That is blindingly obvious. It did not happen in this case.

108. Parents with learning difficulties involved with children's social care where a child is on a child protection plan should have their own advocate as a priority. A referral should be made for that service as soon as practicable. Further, the support available to a parent with learning disabilities in their own right should be distilled into a simple document identifying what is available, how often it is available, the timescales for its availability, and who is responsible for its delivery. Pending assessments should be noted and followed up on a regular basis. That document should be shared with children's social care if they are involved and, ideally, it should be discussed with a parent in the presence of their advocate. Likewise, support with the care of a child which is available and which is being delivered should also be distilled into a simple document: what; how often; the timescales; and who is responsible. That document should be shared with adult social care. Again, it should be discussed with the parent in the presence of their advocate. All of this amounts to the joined up thinking and planning advocated by the Guidance."

Mark Smulian

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