‘Parents with learning disabilities can be disadvantaged when being assessed due to strict timescales’

‘Parents with learning disabilities can be disadvantaged when being assessed due to strict timescales’

ISW Pamela Smith talks about her experience of undertaking the ParentAssess training for parenting assessments of parents with learning disabilities

Social workers carrying out specialist parenting assessment of parents with learning disabilities need to be assertive to challenge deadlines where it is in the parents’ best interests, an Independent Social Worker with more than 25 years’ experience in the UK has warned.

In some instances, parents with learning disabilities or additional needs are put at a disadvantage as social workers are forced to adhere to strict deadlines because they may need more time to demonstrate what they are capable of, says Pamela Smith, ISW.

“Patience is key when assessing parents with learning disabilities. Social workers are always up against it with deadlines, court dates, timescales to get things filed. However, parents with a learning disability need to go at their own pace rather than be rushed to adhere to deadlines. They are often disadvantaged as social workers are under fire to get things done and parents are not afforded the time that they need,” explains Pamela.

“It is going to take longer to assess a parent with a learning disability. It is not fair for a social worker to reach a conclusion within their timescale without enabling the parent to demonstrate their parenting capacity. Therefore, social workers need to have the confidence and assertiveness to communicate [this] with solicitors [and] local authorities," added Pamela.

“People without any additional needs find the assessment a stressful and painful process. There is a reason why they are being assessed and hearing that you are not doing the right thing can be difficult to hear for anyone. So, it is important to do the assessment in a way and to take the time for parents to demonstrate their capacity to change or to work with them to acknowledge what they cannot do, but it has to be done in a non-adversarial way,” said Pamela.

'Social workers in the States get a far better press than in the UK'

Pamela studied social work at Indiana University in Indianapolis in the USA. The Head of the Social Work School at the university had strong links with the Head of Cardiff’s social work department at the university, and, as a result, social work students would participate in an exchange project whereby a Cardiff student would spend time in The States and vice versa.

Having been offered a scholarship, Pamela participated in an exchange in Cardiff but fell in love with Wales. She went home to tie up loose ends then graduated in 1996 and moved to Cardiff, being awarded permanent leave to remain in 1998.

While the politics and infrastructure are different in the States to the UK, the issues are the same, Pamela explains. There is more gun violence in the USA while the UK is sadly ‘playing catch up’ on such violence.

“Social workers in the States get a much better press than social workers in the UK,” said Pamela. “In the USA, social work is a respected profession where in the UK, we are just seen to ‘listen to people’s problems’ and it is only when there are failings that social workers come under the spotlight. Furthermore, due to confidentiality to our clients, we cannot speak out about the good work we do and therefore social work goes under the radar.”

This is one of the reasons that WillisPalmer launched our #Respect4SocialWork campaign which urges a greater celebration of the positive work that social workers carry out daily.

Having 25 plus years’ experience practising in the UK, Pamela has a plethora of skills including practice educator, court work in public and private law proceedings, managing a frontline child protection team, service manager for safeguarding, Independent Reviewing Officer as well as being an ISW.


However, something Pamela has wanted to do more of during her career is assessing parents with learning disabilities. Pamela had not trained in the use of specialist methods of assessment for parents with learning disabilities, therefore has not carried out as much work in this area as she would have liked.

“I have carried out some assessments of parents with learning disabilities using some of the PAMS tools, although I wasn’t PAMS trained,” said Pamela.

Rather than undertaking PAMS training however, Pamela decided to enrol on ParentAssess training, via WillisPalmer. ParentAssess is a relatively new framework for assessing parents with learning disabilities and Pamela had heard from colleagues how up to date the assessment tools are.

“The ParentsAssess training was really good. It was engaging, it was at the right pitch for everyone involved even though we all came with varying experience in assessing parents with learning disabilities, there was the opportunity to talk and iron things out and the timing was just right,” said Pamela.

Child and family focused

The ParentAssess framework incorporates a traffic light system and grades everything on red, amber and green. Parents are asked how they feel about their parenting using the colour codes. They use the tools incorporated in the framework using red, amber and green and at the end of the assessment, areas of parenting are again rated red, amber and green for consistency. The tools are interactive and very clear and this encourages the parent to engage.

The Parent Report as part of ParentAssess is an abridged version of the final report and outlines three key outcomes:

  • What you are doing well,
  • What I am worried about
  • What I am going to say to the court

“It is child and family focused and there are a lot of tools available to help parents with a learning disability understand what you are talking about. The accompanying IT system is easy for parents to comprehend, it is family friendly and easy to use for social workers and other professionals. Plus it gets straight to the point of the assessment,” said Pamela.

She added that her view is that ParentAssess is streets ahead of other assessment frameworks for assessing parents with learning disabilities. She highlighted that other models of assessment use tools such as cartoons of people doing everyday things which could come across as babyish or condescending.

“ParentAssess incorporates photographs of people doing tasks which is far more appropriate.”

Pamela stated that in her experience the report produced at the end of a PAMS assessment can be difficult for parents to interpret and make sense of, therefore leaving them unclear about what they were doing well, risks or concerns, and what needed to change.

“ParentAssess provides useful information in the end in terms of working with parents which is successful,” she added.

“With ParentAssess, the final report is simplified but not condescending and highlights areas clearly where improvements need to be made,” said Pamela.

“It is absolutely a more appropriate model for assessing parents with a learning disability. I think it has the potential to become as popular as PAMS has been. It is a good model and I hope the people who produced it continue to keep it updated and relevant” concluded Pamela.

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