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3.13 Parents with a Learning Disability


See Oxfordshire Children, Education and Families Children's Social Care Procedures, Contacts and Referrals Procedure

This chapter was added to this manual in January 2014.


  1. Introduction
  2. Guidelines for Joint Working to Safeguard Children
  3. Contingency Planning
  4. Implications of Parent / Carer Learning Disability

1. Introduction

A learning disability is a permanent life-long condition, which is defined by the Department of Health as:

  • A significantly reduced ability to understand new or complex information, to learn new skills (impaired intelligence);
  • A reduced ability to cope independently (impaired social functioning), which started before adulthood, with a lasting effect on development.

The learning disability of a parent or carer does not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child but it is essential to assess the implications for the child. It is important that professionals do not to let their empathy for a learning disabled parent's struggles with social functioning and parenting affect their focus on the child and his / her safeguarding needs. Maintaining a focus on the child will include consideration of his/her developmental needs, the child’s day-to-day experience of the care being provided by the parent/carer and the likelihood that their needs will be met over time. Professionals should ensure that they are aware of the types of abuse and neglect that can affect children, including the risk of exploitation by adults and young people outside the immediate family.

In circumstances whereby a parent / carer has a learning disability, it is likely there are a number of professionals involved from different services. It is important that these professionals work together within enquiries and assessments to identify any links between the parent’s learning disability, their parenting, and the impact on the child. Any assessment should include an understanding of the needs of the family and children and an identification of the services required to meet these needs. 

Many parents who appear to have learning disabilities are not eligible for support from Adult Learning Disability Teams because their IQ is slightly above 70. If the parent does not have an allocated worker within a Learning Disability Team, consideration should be given to requesting an ABAS assessment to determine their social functioning. Regardless of whether this results in the parent / carer subsequently being allocated to a Team, the worker that completed the assessment should be able to provide advice about the learning disabled parents learning style to professionals supporting the child.

If any agency has concerns that a child is at risk of harm because of the impact of the parent/carer’s learning disability they should check whether the child is subject to a Child Protection / Child in Need Plan.

Where it is believed that a child of a parent with a learning disability may be suffering Significant Harm, a Strategy Discussion / Meeting should be held and consideration should be given to referring him/her to Children’s Social Care to undertake a Section 47 Enquiry.

Where it is believed that a child of a parent with a learning disability may be in need of support, consideration should be given to referring him/her to children’s services for an assessment. Consultation on the thresholds for intervention can be accessed from Children’s Social Care.

2. Guidelines for Joint Working to Safeguard Children

It is essential that staff working in adult learning disabilities and child care work together within the application of Child Protection procedures to ensure the safety of the child and, where appropriate, support and guidance for the adult’s learning disability.

Joint work will include learning disability workers providing any information with regard to the parent/carer’s:

  • Cognitive ability and functioning;
  • Ability to attain and sustain change.

Professionals working with the children must assess the individual needs of each child and within this incorporate information provided by adult learning disability workers.

Methods of assessment and intervention with regard to parenting must take into consideration the parent / carer’s learning disability and be informed by learning disability professionals.

Adult learning disability professionals must attend and provide information to any meeting concerning the implications of the parent/carer’s learning disability on the child. These will include:

Child care professionals must attend meetings related to the management of the parent / carer’s learning disability.

All plans for a child including Child Protection Plans will identify the roles and responsibilities of adult learning disability and other professionals. The plan will also identify the process of communication and liaison between professionals. All professionals should work in accordance with their own agency procedures / guidelines and seek advice and guidance from line management when necessary.

3. Contingency Planning

Professionals need to consider carefully the implications for children when closing their involvement with parents with a learning disability. Consideration should be given to informing the appropriate Children’s Social Care Services team in order that the implications for the child are assessed.

4. Implications of Parent / Carer Learning Disability

To determine how a parent/carer’s learning disability may impact on their parenting ability and the child’s development the following questions need to be considered within an assessment:

  • Does the child take on roles and responsibilities within the home that are inappropriate?
  • Does the parent / carer neglect their own and their child’s physical and emotional needs?
  • Is the parent / carer able to set age appropriate boundaries for the child, and if not what is the impact on the well-being of the child?
  • Does the learning disability result in chaotic structures within the home with regard to meal and bedtimes, etc?
  • Is there a lack of the recognition of safety for the child?
  • Does the parent / carer misuse alcohol or other substances?
  • Does the parent / carer’s learning disability have implications for the child within school, attending health appointments etc;
  • Does the parent / carer’s learning disability result in them rejecting or being unavailable to the child?
  • Does the child witness acts of violence or is the child subject to violence?
  • Does the wider family understand the learning disability of the parent / carer, and the impact of this on the parent / carer’s ability to meet the child’s needs?
  • Is the wider family able and willing to support the parent / carer so that the child’s needs are met?
  • Does culture, ethnicity, religion or any other factor relating to the family have implications on their understanding of the learning disability and the potential impact on the child?
  • How the family functions, including conflict, potential family break up etc;
  • Is the parent / carer vulnerable to being exploited by other people e.g. financially, providing accommodation?
  • Does the parent / carer have difficulty developing and sustaining relationships or have relationships that may present a risk to the child, e.g. relationships that are allowing their partner access to the child for exploitative purposes?
  • Does the parent have a limited understanding of the child’s needs and development including pregnancy, childbirth, and caring for an infant?
  • Does the parent / carer have poor parenting experiences from their own parents as a child?
  • Does the parent / carer have difficulty accessing health care and other support for themselves or the child?

Professionals within assessments must recognise that a learning disability is a lifelong condition. Assessments must therefore consider the implications for the child as they develop throughout childhood. Children may exceed their parent’s intellectual and social functioning at a relatively young age. Early identification and intervention is therefore essential.

Professionals should also recognise that many learning disabled women are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by controlling partners who are in the relationship for their own ends. The nature of the parent / carer's relationship should be considered within the assessment.