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Specialist assessments of parents with a learning disability

PAMS assessments have been synonymous with specialist parent assessments for adults with learning disabilities since shortly after the assessment framework was established in 1998.

PAMS stands for ‘Parent Assessment Manual Software’ and since its introduction it has been used by social workers and independent experts to assess parents when there are child protection concerns. The PAMS assessment framework is designed to support assessment of parents with a learning disability, recognising that they parents with additional needs may require information and questions to be presented in a different way to adults without additional needs. assistance when it comes to being assessed in order for them to understand the procedure and what is required from them.

The framework provides the assessor with techniques to be used when they are working with parents and families with a learning difficulty or disability and concentrates on key areas of parenting, as well as the parents’ engagement with the assessment - assessing the individual’s skills and knowledge, and the frequency they are put into practice.

Parents will be asked about their knowledge and understanding of each key area of parenting, such as behaviour and hygiene. The assessor observes the parents carrying out various tasks which demonstrate their ability to parent safely. Where concerns are highlighted, the assessor will provide parents with advice and tips on how to improve and then gauge their ability to take advice on board and make changes.

Developed by Dr Sue McGaw, PAMS was originally produced in a spiral bound paper format but, as its popularity increased, software was produced to support the assessment framework and assessors using the framework had to undertake specific PAMS training in order to practice.

PAMS 4.0 was released in 2016 and a significant content update was added to PAMS 4.0 and released in 2018.

Until recently, courts would often ask for ‘PAMS assessments’ rather than ‘a specialist parenting assessment for a parent with a learning disability’.

Independent Social Worker Mary Cullen, who is experienced in using PAMS assessments, previously told us: “PAMS breaks down every element of parenting and covers birth to 18. So for new parents, I would assess their ability to sterilise feeding bottles, change nappies, bath and wean a baby whereas for parents of older children I would assess their ability to help a teenager be responsible when it comes to protection against sexually transmitted diseases, how to manage relationship, how to deal with bullying and other challenges that comes with being a parent to teenagers.”

PAMS assessments are likely to give parents with learning difficulties a fair chance and a fair assessment, Mary told us, highlighting that authorities want to keep families together where possible. “PAMS assessments take longer to carry out. I would usually interview for no longer than two hours and have plenty of breaks as it is exhausting for anyone. Often I need to re-phrase things or be creative and allow extra time for things. I always carry out an introduction visit as I will have heard the local authority’s side of things but I then want to hear their story, their narrative with no questions to get an idea as to the whole picture,” she says adding that she often goes shopping with parents with learning difficulties to make observations and ensure that they are safe crossing the road and can manage money.

Mary says that having patience is key to working with parents with learning difficulties as while you are working to tight time-scales, you have to be mindful that they may forget appointments or need more time. “You need to be curious, open-minded and extremely empathetic. Above all, you need to be a people-person,” she said.

However, having been the gold-standard and ‘go-to’ assessment for carrying out parenting assessments of adults with learning disabilities, PAMS is currently rivalled with a new framework: ParentAssess.

ParentAssess uses a traffic light system where red illustrates an area of concern throughout the assessment, while green highlights areas of success and amber signifies areas where work may need to be carried out. The assessment uses photographs of people rather than cartoon images and the final report is short and easy to read, making it more accessible for people with learning disabilities and clearer for them to understand what is required of them.

In fact, the growing prominence of ParentAssess was recognised when the Legal Aid Agency amended its expert fee guidance from PAMS to ‘specialist assessment’ in acknowledgement that there is more than one framework which can be utilised in this area of social work.

“Very often, it will come down to preference among the assessors as to whether they choose to use PAMS or ParentAssess based on which framework they are trained in and which they judge will be most suitable for the case. But there has definitely been a significant shift as even five years ago PAMS was the ‘go-to’ assessment for parents with a learning disability whereas in many areas of the country we are seeing courts ask for ParentAssess specifically,” said Dave Wareham, Head of Services at WillisPalmer.

“WillisPalmer has Independent Social Workers trained in both frameworks and so we have assessors available to take on whichever assessment is required by the local authority or the court. While PAMS has been long-established for assessment of parents with learning disabilities, we are definitely experiencing a rise in the demand for ParentAssess assessments, as well as positive feedback from parents, local authorities and solicitors about the model. Like any market, having a choice can only be a good thing,” concluded Dave.

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