Good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities

If one child in two became looked after, there would rightly be an outcry.  Yet that is the situation for people with learning disabilities who become parents. One of the main reasons for this, many parents with learning disabilities say, is that they find it very difficult to get the support they need to be effective parents.

The Scottish Commission for Learning Disability (SCLD) commissioned Dr Ailsa Stewart and Dr Gillian McIntyre of the University of Strathclyde to scope out services for parents with learning disabilities across Scotland. They found that:

  • There are at least 5,000 parents with a learning disability in Scotland, but the figure may be higher.
  • The number of parents with learning disabilities is not consistently recorded. This hinders the effective planning of services. Many parents with a learning need that impairs their ability to parent effectively do not have a formal diagnosis of a learning disability.
  • One of the main challenges to better service provision is early identification of the families that need support. Midwives who are confident and skilled in working with this population is key. Some midwives and health visitors are not confident about identifying, communicating with or supporting parents with learning disabilities.
  • Effective service provision is patchy and inconsistent across the country. However, there are some areas of good practice, and these may be growing.
  • Effective joint working was found to be crucial to parents feeling well-supported. But there are a number of barriers that make this difficult to achieve. Children’s services and adult services have different cultures, eligibility criteria and often separate budgets. Integration Joint Boards may offer new opportunities for successful joint working between health and social care agencies.

The report made twelve recommendations in four main areas.

Local multi-disciplinary specialist teams should be developed to meet the support needs of parents with learning disabilities in line with the Scottish Good Practice Guidelines.

Good practice already developed locally, for example, in developing care pathways and accessible information strategies, should inform the development of good practice across the whole of Scotland.

More consistent data collection should be developed to support better planning of services.

Social workers, midwives and health visitors should be better equipped to more confidently identify and work with parents with learning disabilities.

Implementing these recommendations is a big task. Assuming there is no money to commission new services for parents with learning disabilities, how do we ensure that the services we provide meet the needs of this population of parents? Supported Parenting - Scottish Good Practice Guidelines for Supporting Parents with Learning Disabilities makes it clear what good practice looks like. 

Getting this support right is not easy. But both parents with learning disabilities and their children have the right to family life. And as a manager who supports families with learning disabilities said: “If we get it right for parents with learning disabilities then we get it right for everyone.”