Parental learning disability and children's needs

Sue McGaw, Consultant Clinical Psychologist and founder of the Special Parenting Service in Cornwall, UK, reviews Parental learning disability and children's needs, by Heady Cleaver and Don Nicholson. 2007, London, Jessica Kingsley. ISBN 978-1-84310-632-6 Price: £19.99

This is a welcome addition to the few books currently available to professionals on the topic of parents with learning disabilities. These learned authors give a succinct and fascinating overview of the findings from their two studies, which were conducted across a large sample of 2,248 referrals to children's social care in 10 English local authorities. Their cross-sectional analysis using a controlled study design is the first of its kind in the UK.

The book provides a useful breakdown and comparison of the assessment of parenting in accordance with the government's Assessment Framework (2000) from which the measurement of children's development, parenting capacity, and family and environmental factors has been made. The author's findings support that reported previously in the research literature.

In summary, social workers reported that parents with learning disabilities were experiencing severe, multiple parenting problems more than that identified for other parents. Also, the children of parents with learning disabilities were assessed as being more vulnerable to developmental needs and poor basic care than children of parents without learning disabilities.

The authors concluded that: “short-term interventions cannot address the changing levels of understanding and skills parents with learning disabilities need to acquire in order to parent their children as they grow up. These families will need continuing support until their children reach adulthood. No single agency can meet their complex needs and a joint approach that involves statutory and voluntary agencies and draws on the strengths within the extended family and community may prove the most expedient”.

There is much to learn from this book regarding the referral and assessment processes that are integral to the social care systems. The authors identified that social workers were more likely to progress cases to an initial assessment when this involved a parent with a learning disability rather than for non-learning disabled parents. Also, social workers tended to cite non-specific concerns as the primary reason for the initial assessment (60% of cases) in contrast to other parents. Specialist assessments and tools were infrequently used by social workers when working with parents with learning disabilities. In addition, the authors identified a poor adherence to government guidelines, incomplete paperwork, a lack of transparency in terms of decision-making, a reluctance to reach closure on cases and the poor sharing of information when cases involved parents with learning disabilities. These findings should raise many issues for social care departments.

Methodologically, while the sample size of the study group was relatively small (children n = 76) in comparison to the larger group of children whose parents did not have a learning disability (children n = 152) the design of the study was robust and sound in its implementation. However, more detailed demographic information (age range, number of siblings) and interview material relating to the children would have enriched the data set, especially as there are many unknowns in the research literature about the long-term plight of children of parents with learning disabilities.

For students new to social care and for those professionals endeavouring to establish effective working practices, this book will provide greater insight into the engagement issues, perception of risk and additional barriers that impede the competency of parents with learning disability. This is a thought-provoking book for all those involved with such needy families.

First published DPPI Journal, Issue 63: Autumn 2008

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