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Supporting parents with learning disabilities

Parents with learning disabilities have the same rights to family life as anyone else, but in practice they face a myriad of challenges when they become parents. There are presumptions that they will lack the ability to care for their child effectively. Between 40-60% of parents with a learning disability have their children removed.

With the right support and a whole-family approach, parents with learning disabilities can provide loving and stable homes for their children. The Shared Lives model enables parents with learning disabilities to realise their right to a family life.

Parenting in Shared Lives

In Shared Lives, the supported adult retains parental responsibility for their child. The role of the Shared Lives carer is not to care for the child, but to enable and support the parent to do so. It is different to foster-care, providing ‘supported parenting’, not ‘substituted parenting’.

The following animation gives a snapshot of a Shared Lives Parenting arrangement:

As a person-centred and asset-based service, Shared Lives is naturally aligned with established principles of good practice when working with parents with a learning disability and draws on Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (WTPN, DoH/ DfES) and Scottish Good Practice Guidelines for Supporting Parents with a Learning Disability (SCLD, 2015).

Funded by the Rayne Foundation in England, and The Promise in Scotland we have worked in partnership with parents with learning disabilities, Shared Lives schemes, , leading academics, and professionals across the statutory and third sectors; we have developed guidance and best practice for supporting Parents and families in Shared Lives.


“The Shared Lives Parenting Project offers a unique approach to providing whole family support.  It ensures that children grow up with their family, protecting vital connections, whilst offering support to help parents overcome difficulties.  The Promise is looking for Scotland to come up with innovative ways to ensure that each and every child have what they need to grow and thrive. The Shared Live Parenting project has done just this.  This project, supported by The Promise Scotland, has partnered with providers and parents with learning disabilities to see if a different approach is possible.  The evaluation report evidences not only the viability but scalability of this approach which could be key in changing our approach to offering whole family support across Scotland.”

The Promise, Scotland

What’s it like as a parent in Shared Lives?

Our Ambassador Abby tells us about life in Shared Lives with her daughter.

It all started when I was in hospital. During pregnancy everything was fine. The hospital contacted social services and I had a several visits a day, health visitor, midwifery team, specialist parenting team, but it wasn’t working. They had concerns about leaving Isabella with me. They had a right to be worried. Isabella was in a vulnerable position, because no one had taught me to do things.

They wanted to send me to a mother and baby centre, in an area I didn’t know anyone and wouldn’t have been able to see my family. My social worker had worked for Shared Lives in the past and helped me get in. At first it was a bit daunting but I met my Shared Lives carer, Mel, and she was lovely. We just laughed a lot. It was a fresh start, a fresh opportunity.

I always looked after Isabella, I just needed Mel to guide me along, just having someone to be there. Mel offered suggestions, like the need for routine. We come up with ideas together like what’s a good time for the baby to go to bed, reading stories to her.

Isabella is so clever. She goes to nursery, she really likes it. She has made friends, she’s always happy and cheerful. There have been lots of firsts, I took Isabella to parks, to see animals. We have a laugh at home, do game nights and karaoke. Before Shared Lives I wasn’t always happy, I didn’t do a lot. I have a full life now and Isabella is thriving.

Abby, Ambassador for Shared Lives Plus

Key Documents