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Parents with learning difficulties – keeping the focus on the children’s best interests

A recent Judgement from the President of the Family Division highlights once again the difficult issues surrounding cases involving parents with learning difficulties.

In this sad case which has a long history; both parents and D (4) had significant learning and additional needs. The original care proceedings which were issued at birth, concluded with D remaining with his parents under a care order and with an intense package of support. Two years later, after efforts were made to implement this support package the local authority returned the matter to Court, seeking D’s removal.

The parents argued that nothing had changed; their needs and their parenting capacity were the same level as at the conclusion of the original care proceedings and there had been no incidents or ‘new’ concerns raised. Why should they not care for their son?

This was not a case where the local authority were criticised for a lack of analysis, planning and the absence of a coherent care plan. In fact, they were commended for doing everything seemingly possible to ensure that D could remain within his family. There are many occasions where the local authority are too quick to dismiss the parents as not being able to provide ‘good enough’ care, particularly in my experience, where parents have learning or cognitive difficulties and need additional support; this is simply not taken into account with the parents either being set up to fail or simply dismissed. It is then left to the parents’ to challenge the local authority in court.

In this case, the local authority had reached the point at which they argued their care plan was no longer realistic. Sadly the Court accepted that the gap between what the parents could provide and D needed could not be bridged, commenting that the local authority’s original care plan was ‘too courageous’ and their “expectations of the parents turned out to be unrealistic”. However, in his Judgement Munby P highlighted various principles; endorsing particularly key points of principle when dealing with parents with learning difficulties, especially when the child also had learning difficulties. The focus remains on ensuring that the concept of ‘parenting with support’ remains central to professionals’ approach to enable a parent to be ‘good enough’ and that the rights of parents with learning difficulties are not unfairly disregarded by enabling them to take part in the proceedings, ensuring their views are heard and they are enabled to fully understand the process.

Some may argue the original care plan simply delayed the inevitable, disadvantaging D who suffered delay in realising his secure long-term placement.

However, we must always try; “..society must be willing to tolerate very diverse standards of parenting, including the eccentric, the barely adequate and the inconsistent……these are the consequences of our fallible humanity and it is not the provenance of the state to spare children all the consequences of defective parenting.” [Hedley J in Re L (Care:Threshold Criteria)(2007))]

This is certainly a sad case, most are. Despite the parents’ wholehearted attempts and best intentions the Court found they lacked the capacity to meet D’s needs. It just wasn’t possible and was not in this little boys’ best interests.

This is as a unique case but it has provided helpful guidance and highlighted a number of important points of principle as to how to approach cases where parents have learning difficulties.