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Family trials

Researchers Wendy Booth and Tim Booth of the Department of Sociological Studies University of Sheffield and David McConnell of the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Sydney write about findings from a study of child protection cases involving parents with learning difficulties.

For the past two years we have been looking at how child protection cases involving parents with learning difficulties are handled by social services and the courts. This article presents some of the early findings to come out of the study.

The research was located in two large northern cities in England. During the year 2000, a total of 437 child protection applications were lodged by local authorities in the cities’ family courts. Court records showed that 66 (15.1%) of these cases involved a mother and or father with learning difficulties.

The impact of disability

The number of parents with learning difficulties in the population is unknown although available evidence suggests that fewer than one half of 1% of families are likely to be headed by such parents. This means they are appearing in court and on professionals’ caseloads at least 30 times more often than would be expected from their numbers in the population.

These 66 cases concerned 127 children: almost one in six of the 828 children involved in all the care applications. A fifth of these children were newborns. Almost a third had some form of identified impairment themselves.

Only 13 (10.2%) of these children were returned home to live with their parents. Nineteen (15%) were placed with other relatives. The remainder (95), fully three-quarters of the total, were placed in the alternative care system, and 53 of these were freed for adoption. Children of parents with learning difficulties were half as likely again to be placed outside their own families or freed for adoption by comparison with their peers from all other families taken together.

These are worrisome facts. The massive over-representation of parents with learning difficulties in child care proceedings, combined with the greater likelihood of their children being taken away permanently, raises far-reaching questions about the impact of their disability on their treatment under the law.

Children who returned home

The concerns that precipitated these court proceedings are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we wish to look at the minority of children who returned home. What is it that distinguished them from the majority who were removed from their families?

First, the children who went home were older. Social services tend to regard older children as less vulnerable and are more inclined to listen to their views. At the same time, they are harder to place, with the number of suitable and willing foster carers or adoptive parents tailing off as children grow older.

Second, in six of the 13 cases, the child’s own determination to return home played a significant part in the outcome. The most forceful way in which children expressed these feelings was by persistently running away from foster placements and making their way back to mum and dad.

Third, children are more likely to be returned to the family home if their parents are willing to acknowledge professionals’ concerns about the care they are providing, submit to their scrutiny and work with them to improve their parenting. Parents’ non-co-operation and their failure to appreciate the need for change was the trigger for care proceedings in over half of all cases involving parents with learning difficulties. The catch-22 here is that parents must first admit their behaviour is putting their child at risk, so legitimising social services intervention, in order to stand any chance of the family being reunited.

Fourth, nine of the 13 children who went home had at least one brother or sister simultaneously placed in care. Professional concerns about the ability of parents to cope with the number of children they have or with their special needs were evident in almost half of the 66 cases we examined. The view appears to be that lightening the load on parents by reducing the number of children in their care might enable them to cope.

Fifth, the comings and goings of men in families also impacted on the decision to return children home. The presence of a man who was viewed by social services as a threat to the children’s welfare could force the mother into having to make a bitter choice between separating from someone she loved or losing her kids. Equally, reconciling with an estranged partner or starting a new relationship could ease the placement of children back home where the man was seen as supportive.

Finally, no child was placed back home against the recommendations of an expert assessment, typically conducted by an independent psychologist. Their opinion was routinely sought in care proceedings involving parents with learning difficulties. Such assessments were documented for 92 of the 127 children in the court records we examined. Even so, a favourable assessment did not necessarily guarantee a return home: 22 children were placed out of home despite the expert opinion that their parents were capable of managing with appropriate support.

Caught in the net

Once parents with learning difficulties become caught in the child protection net they can find it very hard to escape. Their legal representatives are mostly fighting a rearguard action to secure the least detrimental outcome. Parents themselves know the score, often because they’ve been down the same road before. This goes a long way to explain their common reactions of anger, non-co-operation, resignation and disassociation. What is noteworthy about the small number of children who were returned home is that the reasons were overwhelmingly circumstantial. There is no sense in which these outcomes were worked for by the services - no sign of them being the result of professionals working in partnership with parents to secure the best interests of the child. Indeed, the provision of supports or training did not show as a factor in bringing them about. We concluded that child protection work is not about supporting families in need, especially families headed by parents With learning difficulties, and that blunt truth lies behind the sorry statistics uncovered from court records and reported here.

New advocacy project

The Family Rights Group (FRG) provides independent information and advice to families in England and Wales who are in touch with social services about the care and protection of their children. In October 2003 they started a new advocacy service for families in the London area. This service is run by a small team of advocates with both legal and social work backgrounds. The FRG has arranged to accept referrals from social services in several pilot boroughs. Families can also self-refer via FRG’s advice line. Tel: 0800 731 1696 or e-mail: officefrg.org.uk.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 45, Winter 2003/4.

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