Parents with Learning Disabilities and the Courts – How can we help?

Here at Rosie Bracher Solicitors we believe that people with Learning difficulties have the right to be supported and assessed if they choose to become parents.  Such assessment and support should start from the moment a baby is conceived.

We’ve been working with Parents with Learning Difficulties now for over 20 years.

Working with parents who have Learning Difficulties needs a special and very different approach. Lawyers and others need to write and speak in simple ways.  We often use “text” messages to remind clients of appointments or to repeat important advice.  We have to keep these short and many Learning Disabled clients seem to find this way of keeping in touch for day to day things easier than by letters.   We use diagrams and physical demonstrations of what we are trying to communicate.  Anything that helps our client to understand what we are trying to say.

We always try to slow down and check that parents understand what we have said and understand the statements and other documents in their Court case.  If need be we will read complicated long documents to our clients and explain what is said using simple words.  When we write to clients we use larger print and avoid big difficult words.

When we explain about the Court we use a picture book in an easy read format that explains who all the people involved in a case are and what their jobs are.    We don’t just talk about the law we ask questions about what you find easy and what you find difficult and we try to help point you to other people who can help you sort out the things that are important but which we cannot help with.  These may be practical things.  An example of this is a charity we know who will fit door locks and chains, fire alarms and stair gates (and other simple safety devices) for free.   Another example is helping to find courses where parents can learn to cook nutritious family meals or deal with difficult behaviour.

We encourage clients to keep a diary for all their day to day appointments and supply diaries if needed.  Keeping appointments with professionals is a first step to showing the kind of organisation that all parents need if they are to meet their growing children’s needs.  At a very basic level it shows you can have the organisation to get your children to health appointments and to school on time.

If a parent (father or mother) has a learning difficulty they can request an assessment of their support needs to help them parent a baby before the baby is born.   A parent who is already known to the social workers as having a learning difficulty should not have to ask for this assessment but we find that often these assessments are not done at the beginning and this causes delay and can lead to family breakdown because of lack of the right support.

Often parents with learning difficulties need long term support.   Sometimes Children’s Services don’t want to offer long term support and try to say parents must learn to do things the parents cannot learn because of their learning difficulty eg helping children with homework might not be something a parent is able to learn.

Social workers may question if children should stay with their parents or move to live with another family, either a relative, a foster carer or for babies, adoption.  This might be because the child or children’s needs are being neglected through poor parenting.   When this happens parents need good support and legal advice to make the right choices.  Social workers can and do change their views of parents if the parents cooperate.   Good early legal advice can help parents to understand the social work concerns and work in partnership with the social workers to provide good care for the child or children.

Learning to look after a new born baby means knowing how to make their bottles, sterilise equipment, check the baby for signs of illness, sooth them to sleep.  This very soon moves on to a need to supervise a toddler exploring cupboards and putting everything in reach in to their mouths, and often to dealing with tantrums and difficult behaviour in a positive way.  Hard for all parents.  Before long  your child is a pupil at school who needs to be in school with the correct uniform and equipment and who brings homework home.  Parents with Learning Disabilities may need different help along the way and to be guided about child development and supported to access parenting groups where they can learn these skills.  Often professionals talk about “boundary setting”.    All parents can struggle to use positive parenting skills day in and day out but there is no reason why someone with a Learning Difficulty or Disability will not be  a good parent or cannot be a good parent with good support.

Local Authorities have budgets to manage and providing long term services to parents with Learning Disabilities can be expensive but not as expensive as taking children in to care.  Often Local Authorities deny they have a duty to parents unless they are very disabled neglecting to give help to those with a mild learning difficulty.  We can help when this happens by asking for assessments.

Expectant mothers can be put under pressure to agree to their child being “voluntarily accommodated” with a foster carer or to attend a “mother and baby” placement.  It is bad practice to put a parent under this pressure without advising parents and expectant mothers (and fathers) to take independent legal advice.  This is because parents with Learning Difficulties may be unable to give consent if they do not fully understand the consequences of what they are agreeing.

Many Learning Disabled parents are scared of asking for help, perhaps embarrassed or ashamed of their difficulties in understanding, reading and writing.   We try to help support all parents to ask for the right support and help and to work in an open and cooperative way with professionals to get the best for themselves and their children.

We have helped many mothers and fathers to keep their children and supported them to find ways of working with professionals that are cooperative and supportive.   If you want help about any issue concerning caring for a child when professionals have raised concerns you can contact us by phone 01271 314904 or by email: or by calling in to our offices in Barnstaple.     
Solicitor Amanda Dawe – specialises in working with families with Learning Difficulties


Solicitor Rosie Bracher – specialises in working with families with Learning Difficulties