Family courts are frequently presented with care proceedings where a child is deemed to be at risk because their parent has learning difficulties. It is considered that if a parent struggles to care for themselves, they struggle to care for a child. However, most of these cases are brought before the Court because of an assumed risk and not one which has in fact materialised. Why, therefore, is such an assumption drawn when it doesn’t match the reality of the situation?

Such a case recently arose in the Central Family Court where it was found that a mother with severe learning difficulties and very little family support would have to be taught 41% of her parenting skills within 4-8 weeks to be able to sufficiently care for her child. Due to the apparent insurmountable difficulty of this task, the Local Authority and the Guardian advocated adoption. Despite initially presenting with significant difficulties, with the help of Mencap, a UK charity which assists people with learning difficulties, the mother learned to cook, comprehend schedules and risk assess potential partners within a short period of time. Mencap also held that the mother was capable of further improvements in the future. The mother’s increased ability was reflected in the child’s development goals which were consistently met whilst in her care. Why then was adoption considered the most viable course of action?

Such an approach is at odds with legal precedent which advocates adoption as a last resort in care proceedings; it should only occur when nothing else will do (Case of Re B).  It was said in the case of YC v UK the Government should not engage in social engineering, removing children because they would have a more beneficial upbringing under an adoption placement. In this case there was a stark chasm between what the Court deemed the mother able to do and what she demonstrated, achieving her improvement targets and causing no detrimental impact to the child. Adoption was therefore not necessarily the last resort, as the mother had demonstrated that she could parent with support. As such, the case was appealed.

The Court of Appeal was encouraged to consider the analysis of Lord Justice Gillen in Re G & A (2006) who advocated the ability of people with learning difficulties to parent. The Court was reminded that; people with learning difficulties are valued members of society and should be supported to achieve their full potential within it; that parents with learning difficulties must not be held against a higher standard than parents without; and that such parents should be given an opportunity to demonstrate that the perceived risk of neglect will not occur within their care. To really make adoption a last resort, the Court must consider how big the gap in the parent’s ability is and if it can be bridged with a sustainable package of support. The Court ought to be comparing removal of the child with the possibility of parenting with support. It was this approach which resulted in His Honour Judge Tolson reversing the decision of adoption.

The Court should not assume that someone with learning difficulties is incapable of learning. A Mencap worker stated that ‘…vast research has proven that brain plasticity means that possibilities for change are endless.’ The Court is receptive to parents without learning difficulties’ engagement with services; they should therefore be applying this principle to parents with learning difficulties, not relying on an assumption of inability but on evidence of growth.

At Beecham Peacock our Family Team has experienced Solicitors who can assist you if you are involved in care proceedings.  Call 0191 232 3048.

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