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5.25 Learning Difficulties and Disabilities of a Parent/Carer


Chapter 1: Assessing need and providing help, Working Together to Safeguard Children


Disabilities and Learning Difficulties Procedure


In November 2021, this chapter was updated to include information in relation to pre-birth assessments and planning.


Caption: contents table
  Risk to Children
  Action to Safeguard


  1. Where a parent has a learning disability it is important not to generalise or make assumptions about their parental capacity. Learning disabled parents may need support to develop the understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their children. Such support is particularly needed where they experience additional stressors such as having a disabled child, domestic abuse, poor physical and mental health, substance misuse, social isolation, poor housing, poverty and a history of growing up in care. It is these additional stressors, when combined with a learning disability, that are most likely to lead to concerns about the care a child or children may receive.

Risk to Children

  1. Children of parents with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities are at increased risk from inherited learning disability and are more vulnerable to psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems. From an early age, children may assume the responsibility of looking after their parent, and in many cases other siblings, one or more of whom may be learning disabled. Unless parents with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities are comprehensively supported - e.g. by a capable non-abusive relative, such as their own parent or partner - their children's health and development may be impaired. A further risk of harm to children arises because mothers with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities may be attractive targets for men who wish to gain access to children for the purpose of sexually abusing them.

Action to Safeguard

  1. If any worker has concerns about a child whose parents have Learning Difficulties and Disabilities, A CAF should always be undertaken and consideration given to making a referral to Children's Social Care where appropriate. Where a child is considered to be at risk of Significant Harm, a referral must be made using the Making a Referral to Children's Social Care Procedure.
  2. A comparative study of children and families with learning disabled parents referred to Children's Social Care showed twice as many children had severe developmental needs, and five times as many had parents who were experiencing severe difficulties in meeting their children's needs. The research found that parents with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities are more likely to need long-term support.
  3. A comparative study of methods of supporting parents with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities found that group education, combined with home-based support, increases parenting capacity. In some areas, services provide accessible information, advocacy, peer support, multi-agency and multi-disciplinary assessments, and on-going home-based and other support. This 'parenting with support' appears to yield good results for both parents and children.
  4. A specialist assessment is often needed and is recommended. Where specialist assessments have not been carried out and/or learning disability support services have not been involved, evidence from inspections has shown that crucial decisions could be made on inadequate information.
  5. Adult learning disability services, particularly community nurses, can provide valuable input to core assessments, and there are also validated assessment tools available.
  6. Where pre-birth involvement is a result of the mother’s learning difficulties causing uncertainty as to her ability to meet the needs of the child once born, the Court of Appeal in D (A Child) [2021] EWCA Civ 787 stressed the importance of effective planning during the pregnancy for the baby’s arrival, and of taking adequate steps to ensure that the mother understands what is happening and is able to present her case.