PG26. Learning Disabilities (Parenting Capacity)

For a record of all amendments and updates, see the Amendments & Archives.

Specific definitions of key concepts used by safeguarding practitioners are available through the Glossary.


This chapter was revised in March 2018 when linked information on Good Practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability was updated.
Caption: Parenting Capacity and Learning Disabilities


Parental learning disabilities do not necessarily have an adverse impact on a child's developmental needs, but it is essential to always assess the implications for each child in the family. Learning disabled parents may need support to develop the understanding, resources, skills and experience to meet the needs of their children. Such support is particularly necessary where the parent/s experience the additional stressors of:


In most cases it is these additional stressors, when combined with a parent's learning disability, that are most likely to lead to concerns about the care their child/ren may receive. If a parent with learning difficulties appears to have difficulty meeting their child/ren's needs, a referral should be made to local authority children's social care, who have a responsibility to assess the child's needs and offer supportive and protective services as appropriate.


Where a parent has enduring and / or severe learning disabilities, children in the household are more likely to suffer significant harm through emotional abuse, and / or neglect, but also through physical and / or sexual abuse. See Recognising Abuse and Neglect Procedure

Significant harm is defined in Responding to Concerns of Abuse and Neglect Procedure, Concept of significant harm as a situation where a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, a degree of physical, sexual and / or emotional harm (through abuse or neglect) which is so harmful that there needs to be compulsory intervention by child protection agencies into the life of the child and their family.


The following factors may contribute to a child having suffered, or being more likley to suffer, significant harm:

  • Children of parents with learning disabilities are at increased risk from inherited learning disability and more vulnerable to psychiatric disorders and behavioural problems, including alcohol / substance misuse and self- harming behaviour;
  • Children having caring responsibilities inappropriate to their years placed upon them, including looking after siblings (see Young Carers Procedure);
  • Neglect leading to impaired growth and development, physical ill health or problems in terms of being out of parental control;
  • Mothers with learning disabilities may be targets for men who wish to gain access to children for the purpose of sexually abusing them.


Local authority children's social care, vulnerable adult's services and other agency services must undertake a multi-disciplinary assessment using the Assessment Framework (see Referral and Assessment Procedure and Appendix 4: Triangle chart for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families for a summary and diagram of the Assessment Framework), including specialist learning disability and other assessments, to determine whether or not parents with learning disabilities require support to enable them to care for their children. Such assessment will also assist in considering whether the level of learning disability is such that it may impair the health or development of the child for an adult with learning disabilities to be the primary carer.


All agencies must recognise that their primary duty is to ensure the promotion of the child's welfare, including their protection from any risk of harm.


Local Safeguarding Children Partnerships are responsible for taking full account of the challenges and complexities of work in this area by ensuring inter-disciplinary / agency protocols are in place for the co-ordination of assessment and support, and for close collaboration between all local children's and adult's services.


Local authority vulnerable adult's services should ensure eligibility criteria for service provision is such that parents with learning disabilities who need help in order to be able to care for their children can benefit from support provided under the NHS and Community Care Act 1990.


Group education combined with home-based support increases parenting capacity. Supported parenting should include:

  • Accessible information;
  • Advocacy;
  • Peer support;
  • Multi-agency and multi-disciplinary re/assessments;
  • Long-term home-based and other support.


For further information see Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (DH / DfES, 2007 updated 2016).