Your help needed! Yes, you (maybe)! Parents with learning difficulties/disabilities and the family court

By Richard Devine

Have you ever had a case where a parent had learning difficulties’ and substitute parenting (or supplemented care by family, friends or professionals, or ‘wrap around care’), in any shape or form, was discussed or considered?

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE do get in touch if so…your contribution will be invaluable.

This is a really important piece of research exploring the idea of substituted parenting for adults with learning difficulties.

The project team would like to speak with practitioners in the family courts – lawyers, social workers, children’s guardians, independent experts, members of the judiciary – who have experience of cases involving parents with learning disabilities/difficulties, where the issue of ‘substituted parenting’ (or ‘parenting by others’) has been raised.

Published family court judgments show that the expression ‘substituted parenting’ is often used during care proceedings in cases involving parents with learning disabilities and tends to result in the children being permanently removed from their families.

The term appears to be being used by local authorities when the support they have identified as necessary for the parents is extensive. They say the high level of support required equates to substituted parenting which is detrimental as it confuses children as to who is the parent. Since most parents with learning disabilities are likely to need long-term support, this approach risks becoming a discriminatory blanket policy.

Where has this term come from? What is the research evidence base for the concept and its conclusion that ‘substituted parenting’ or parenting by others is necessarily detrimental to a child’s welfare? What level of support is regarded as substituted parenting? Is it / should it be a matter of how much support is provided or, instead, should the question be how that support is provided?

Views and insights from professionals with direct experience of such cases are essential for achieving the ultimate aim of the project, which is that there should be clarity, consistency and transparency about how the term is understood and applied in the family courts. 

If you are interested in taking part in this study (or have any questions), please contact myself on or email Nadine Tilbury at the following email address

See here and here for more information

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

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