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1.4.12 Children at Risk where a Parent has a Learning Disability


This chapter was updated in July 2018 in line with updated Good Practice Guidance and recent case-law.


  1. Introduction
  2. Implications of Parent/Carer Learning Disability
  3. Guidelines for Joint Working
  4. Contingency Planning
  5. Good Practice
  6. Findings from Research
  7. Further Information

1. Introduction

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.

The learning disability of a parent or carer does not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child but it is essential to assess the implications for the child. If any agency has concerns that a child is at risk of harm because of the impact of the parent/carer’s learning disability they should check whether the child is subject to a Child Protection Plan - see Recording that a Child is the subject of a Child Protection Plan Procedure.

Where it is believed that a child of a parent with a learning disability may be at risk of Significant Harm, a Strategy Discussion/Meeting should be held and consideration should be given to undertaking a Section 47 Enquiry.

In circumstances whereby a parent/carer has a learning disability it is likely there are a number of professionals involved from different services. It is important that these professionals work together within enquiries and assessments to identify any links between the parent’s learning disability, their parenting, and the impact on the child. Any assessment should include an understanding of the needs of the family and children and an identification of the services required to meet these needs.

Where a parent has a learning disability it will be important not to make assumptions about their parental capacity. Having a learning disability does not mean that a person cannot learn new skills.

Some parents with learning disabilities will only need short-term support, such as help with looking after a new baby or learning about child development and childcare tasks. Others, however, will need on-going support. Most may need support at various different points of their family’s life cycle.

It is important for support needs to be recognised at the early stages of the parenting experience. If possible, identification of needs should start when a pregnancy is confirmed.

It is particularly important to avoid the situation where poor standards of parental care, which do not, however, meet the threshold of significant harm to a child, subsequently deteriorate because of a lack of support provided to the parent. It is important to recognise low levels of need, which, if unaddressed, are likely to lead to difficulties for parents and undermine children’s welfare. Where section 47 enquiries conclude that a child is not at risk, or not at continuing risk, of significant harm it will be important that action is taken to prevent future problems arising.

2. Implications of Parent/Carer Learning Disability

To determine how a parent/carer’s learning disability may impact on their parenting ability and the child’s development the following questions need to be considered within an assessment:

  • 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 disability 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 disability have implications for the child within school, attending health appointments etc.;
  • Does the parent/carer’s learning disability 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. Children may exceed their parent’s intellectual and social functioning at a relatively young age. Early identification and intervention is therefore essential.

3. Guidelines for Joint Working

It is essential that staff working in adult learning disabilities and child care work together within the application of child protection procedures to ensure the safety of the child and, where appropriate, support and guidance for the adult’s learning disability.

Joint work will include learning disability workers providing any information with regard to the parent/carer’s:

  • Cognitive ability and functioning;
  • Ability to attain and sustain change.

Professionals working with the children must assess the individual needs of each child and within this incorporate information provided by adult learning disability workers.

Methods of assessment and intervention with regard to parenting must take into consideration the parent/carer’s learning disability and be informed by learning disability professionals.

Adult learning disability professionals must attend and provide information to any meeting concerning the implications of the parent/carer’s learning disability on the child. These will include:

Child care professionals must attend meetings related to the management of the parent/carer’s learning disability.

All plans for a child including Child Protection Plans will identify the roles and responsibilities of adult learning disability and other professionals. The plan will also identify the process of communication and liaison between professionals. All professionals should work in accordance with their own agency procedures/ guidelines and seek advice and guidance from line management when necessary.

4. Contingency Planning

Professionals need to consider carefully the implications for children when closing their involvement with parents with a learning disability. Consideration should be given to informing the appropriate Children’s Social Care Services team in order that the implications for the child are assessed.

5. Good Practice

The case of A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) [2017] EWFC B94 highlighted the question of whether the parenting that can be offered is good enough if support is provided. However, this obligation does not extend to support that is tantamount to substituted parenting.

The case identified five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities:

  • Accessible information and communication;
  • Clear and co-ordinated referral and assessment procedures and processes, eligibility criteria and care pathways;
  • Support designed to meet the needs of parents and children based on assessments of their needs and strengths;
  • Long-term support where necessary;
  • Access to independent advocacy.

The case also highlighted the need for specialist:

Training - specialist training on dealing with parents with a learning disability, emphasising how best to work with the parents and how to deliver the right support.

Accessible information and communication:

Communication - communicating with parents in a way they understand.

This may include:

  • Taking more time to explain things;
  • Telling parents things more than once and checking their understanding of what has been said;
  • Considering in advance how best to prepare for meetings, and discussing with parents whether they would like an Advocate to support them to prepare for the meeting and take part in it;
  • Hands-on approaches, such as role-play, modelling, and filming tasks being completed;
  • Step by step pictures showing how to undertake a task;
  • Repeating tasks regularly and providing opportunities for frequent practice;
  • Use of 'props', for example, containers which will hold the right amount of milk.

Parents should be told, in plain language, what any assessment is, what it is for, what it will involve, and what will happen afterwards. They may need to be told more than once, for example, a parent may need to be reminded what happened at the last meeting.

Accessible information

Information about universal services made available to parents and prospective parents should be in formats suitable for people with learning disabilities. This may include:

  • Easy Read versions of leaflets, avoiding the use of jargon;
  • Audio and/or visual information on CD/DVD/MP3;
  • Fully accessible websites;
  • Creating opportunities to tell people with learning disabilities, face-to-face, about services for parents and parents-to-be;
  • 'Word banks' of words that parents can read and understand, to be used in written communications with the parents.

6. Findings from Research

Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability (2016) (p. 50 et seq) identifies the following:

  • Self-directed learning can bring about long-term improvement in parenting skills;
  • Group education combined with home-based intervention is more effective than either home-based intervention or a group education programme on its own;
  • Parents with learning disabilities value both advocacy services and those which support self-advocacy;
  • Good co-ordination and communication between children's and adult services is key to effective interventions;
  • Preventative approaches are key to safeguarding and promoting children's welfare;
  • Interventions should build on parents' strengths as well as addressing their vulnerabilities;
  • Interventions should be based on performance rather than knowledge and should incorporate modelling, practice, feedback and praise;
  • Tangible rewards may promote attendance at programmes, rapid acquisition of skills and short-term commitment;
  • Other methods of engagement are needed long term;
  • Intensive service engagement is more effective than intermittent service engagement;
  • Programmes should be adapted to the actual environment in which the skills are needed in order to enable parents to generalise their learning;
  • Teaching should be in the home if possible and if not, in as home-like an environment as possible;
  • Factors in the family's environment which promote children's resilience should be identified and enhanced;
  • The importance of family ties (for most – though not all – parents and their children) should be recognised and no actions taken that damage such ties;
  • Interventions should increase the family's experience of social inclusion rather than cause or contribute to their social exclusion.

7. Further Information

Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability (DoH/DfES, 2007)

The Working Together with Parents Network have produced an update of this guidance – Working Together with Parents Network Good Practice Guidance on Working with Parents with a Learning Disability (2016)

A Local Authority v G (Parent with Learning Disability) [2017] EWFC B94