It might be easier to count the leaves on a tree than the things a new parent can find to fret about.
Feeding, sleeping, smiling, crying, walking, talking, too much, too little, too soon, too late. A nagging suspicion that something is not quite right can often feel like the only constant for new parents in a world suddenly turned upside down.
When Lyndsey Boyle’s first baby was born, however, she had a very real reason to worry after her daughter Lexi arrived nine weeks early, weighing just 2lbs 4oz.
Fearful for her newborn baby, Lyndsey, who has learning difficulties, endured more uncertainty after being told that, even if Lexi pulled through, she might not be allowed to return home.
There were concerns that Lyndsey could not safely care for her baby and that she might become one of the 40 per cent of parents with learning disabilities who no longer live with their children.
Thankfully, after four months in hospital, Lexi was allowed home in October to live with Lindsey and her mum and dad in care arrangements bolstered by Aberlour in South Ayrshire.
Our team, based in Girvan but operating across the region, work closely with parents with learning disabilities to increase their skills, self-confidence and ability to provide safe, caring homes for their children. We deliver practical advice for families, where one or both parents have learning disabilities, but as importantly, we offer emotional support and reassurance, an encouragement that they have the skills and support to care for their children.
Research in 2013 suggested children of parents with a learning disability were more likely to be taken into care in Scotland than in England while also highlighting significant differences between Scotland’s councils when deciding if their children should be taken into care, fostered or adopted.
Things may have improved since then but, sadly, there remains a suspicion that some parents with learning disabilities are still having their children taken into care without being given every possible opportunity to care for them at home. If it can be done, the benefits of keeping their family intact are boundless. It is good for the parents, good for taxpayers but, above all, good for children, securing them a far better start and a far brighter future.
Funded by the Big Lottery and South Ayrshire Council, our team improve the prospects of children of parents with learning disabilities, keeping them out of care and protecting their mental and physical health. Experts suggest more community-based services like ours would allow many more parents to care for their children at home, greatly improving their chances in life.
Planning, never mind funding, those services is difficult, of course, when we cannot even be sure how many Scottish parents have learning disabilities. The current best guess is around 5,000 but – since 63 per cent of the parents we support are found to have an undiagnosed learning disability – there are almost certainly many, many more.
A consistent definition of learning disability that is both simpler and more flexible might help. Currently, a parent being a few IQ points above or below 70 can mean the difference between their family securing concerted, consistent support and getting none at all.
An evaluation of our service by the Social Value Lab focused on just six of the families helped by Aberlour across South Ayrshire. It found that without the charity’s support: 12 children would not have attended school regularly; three children would have ended up in the criminal justice system; nine children would have been taken into care; and five children would not have received essential health care.
In addition, three parents would have suffered deteriorating health; two parents would not have attended college; three parents would not have found other vital support services; and one parent would probably have ended up in jail. In total, the support scheme saved taxpayers £1.4million in one year with a projected saving of £9.6million over ten years.
Of course, sometimes it cannot work. Sometimes, parents – with or without learning disabilities – cannot properly care for their children and careful, clear-eyed assessment of parenting capacity, responsive to the needs and wishes of parents and their children, is the seam that runs through our work.
No two families are the same and we work closely with families to establish what kind of support each needs and tailor our work to provide that. Early intervention is, as always, crucial. A quick fix, a sudden intervention when a family is already in or facing crisis, will often only postpone another crisis. Much of our work is about seeing and tackling potential problems long before they become critical, winning the trust of parents and ensuring the physical and emotional needs of their children are being met.
Parents need long-term support from before their baby is born, in the months after birth and, often, for many years to come. Often they will need particular support at milestones in their child’s lives, at times of transition, from baby to toddler, nursery to primary from primary to secondary. They need to know help is there and how to find it.
Getting it right for the children of parents with learning disabilities demands a concerted effort from everyone involved, from midwives and health visitors to social workers and psychologists. That life-changing effort should also be shaped by the experience, expertise and commitment of the Third Sector and driven by the kind of innovative, effective support delivered by charities like Aberlour.
Parents with learning disabilities only want to be the best they can be, to care for their children and give them the best chance for a better future. That is all they want and they deserve every chance. Getting it right for every child means getting it right for every parent too.
By SallyAnn Kelly, Chief Executive of the Aberlour Child Care Trust
Blog posts do not necessarily represent the views of the Strategic Forum for Adult Learning