Parents losing children in 'loaded system'

Against a background of prejudice and out-of-date assessments, six out of 10 parents with learning disabilities are having their children removed for adoption, research by Bristol University suggests.

In Birmingham, where children's services were described as "not fit for purpose" in a government report, social workers have told the BBC the system is loaded against the learning disabled who are more likely to lose their children than keep them.

By Nick Lawrence

November 9, 2009 / BBC News

A whistleblower in Birmingham City Council's social services department said: "We frequently remove children from young mothers who continue to have children.

"We frequently go back and remove one child after the other, but we'll find there's been very little or no work done with that mother from having a first child removed to giving birth to the second child."

Anna Marriott, a researcher at the Nora Fry institute based at Bristol University, said the system discriminated against the learning disabled.

She told the BBC: "Rather than looking for any actual evidence of problems with parents coping, (social workers) just assume the parent won't be able to cope.

"And rather than looking to put a support plan in place, they'll look to initiate child protection proceedings."

The Birmingham whistleblower agrees, claiming once one child has been removed, removal of the family's next child is virtually automatic.

She added, once one assessment has been made by social workers and psychologists, the same assessments are likely to be re-dated and re-used for when another child comes along.

The whistleblower said: "Lots of people will copy over old info, not checking the primary source of material."

'Helping children'

Isabelle Plumstead, a leading family court judge said she had concerns about multiple child removals and wanted to see much more support put in place.

"If you help the parents, of course you are helping the children.

"And when you, as I have, come across the eighth, ninth, 10th, or even in one case the 14th child of a parent being in care proceedings, how much better if the thing could have been cracked at number one."

Christine Spooner had two children removed from her care and placed for adoption by Birmingham Children's Services.

At the time her condition, Aspergers syndrome, had not been diagnosed.

She said: "They didn't understand the person I was. They just seemed to look at the weakest parts, what I couldn't do. They didn't even try and think about what I could do".

Support for learning disabled parents is available through organisations such as Citizen Advocacy South Birmingham (CASBA).

Specialist workers help to guide learning disabled parents through a complex legal process which can be emotionally draining.

CASBA serves the whole of South Birmingham but is staffed for only 58 hours per week.

Vice chair Sior Coleman said: "The harsh reality is that we don't have enough money.

"There is an understanding from the authorities that it's an important service, but it's seen as a luxury - as an add-on."

The whistleblower said she had been in meetings along with 17 professionals and one parent with no representation or support.

She said in some cases the parent had been identified as having issues with anger management, poor communication skills, or poor concentration.

She added: "So they have to sit and listen to the most intimate details of their lives and their children's lives [being] discussed in a professional forum and they are expected to behave as professionals.

"And if they are not behaving in that way, they will be judged on that."

The BBC put the social worker's claims to the new director of Birmingham Children's Services, Colin Tucker, who said: "I've got to change that because I would agree with you that isn't fair, that isn't proper and that isn't right.

"I want to talk to parents with learning disabilities, not to patronise them or make excuses, but to genuinely listen to their stories and see how I can respond to that."

It is too late for Christine Spooner, though, whose children have now been adopted and are with new families.

She has devoted herself to volunteer work, helping to support parents going through a similar experience, and is campaigning for change.

She said: "I'm sick and tired of the negative attitude and I want people to think more positively about learning disabled people.

"Realistically I would love to be a parent again, but what if it happens again? What if it goes on again?

"I don't want to have my heart torn out the third time in a row. I've had enough pain in my life. I don't want any more".

The Inside Out investigation, "Christine's Story", can be seen on BBC1 in the West Midlands on Monday 9 November at 1930 GMT and on the BBC iPlayer for seven days following the broadcast.

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