Northern Ireland

Couple forced to give up children criticise system

A married couple with learning disabilities say they have been let down by social services and the judicial system after they were forced to put their children up for adoption.

The couple, who have since been allowed to keep another child, say their family has been destroyed.

The charity Mencap NI said such cases are a growing problem. However the health trust concerned said in most cases it seeks to support families to provide good care for their children while ensuring they remain safe.

The BBC have changed the couples names to protect their identity and privacy.

Several years ago, the health trust challenged Mary and Peter's ability to be parents and their children were removed and placed for adoption.

They have since won the right to see them - but only twice a year.

"It just breaks my heart, I miss them and I want to have them," Mary said. "Those visits are really hard - it's just so hard having to leave them."

The couple both spent a long time in residential care in Northern Ireland. Their past means that social services are involved in their married life.

While the couple agree they have a "mild learning disability" they believe this does not affect their ability to be good parents.

Peter says he regards himself as a good father who knows what is best for his children.

"I look after my family in a good way, pay the bills, run my home, feed the baby, do what any other parent does," he said.

"When I hear other stories on the news about what other parents do to their children, I wonder why they are looking at my family, instead they should be taking more interest in what others are doing."

Approximately eight years ago, the couple's health trust questioned their ability to look after their children and eventually sent them to a centre in England where an assessment described them as being "severely mentally handicapped".

Image caption The couple said they believe their disabilities do not affect their ability to be good parents

Reports from psychologists said that the couple found it difficult to "accept advice and sustain levels of attention."

When the care proceedings reached court, the judge in the case accepted the parents were loving and caring, but he found parts of the doctors' evidence "positively chilling."

But the couple dispute some of what the judge was told.

While they acknowledge they have a mild learning disability, they say how they sound and act does not prevent them from being good parents.

Too late

While social services did try to help the family, the parents were not always co-operative - something which later weighed against them in court.

However Peter says it was not all their fault.

"They talked over us as if we were invisible and not to us. It was hard to take in what they were doing, we weren't even told we needed legal advice until it was too late. "

Mary explained: "It was very hard going through all that pain, thinking you were going to get the children back and then you don't get them back and they are put up for adoption."

Despite having some of their children removed, the couple are being allowed to keep their latest baby.

They say it's down to the support they received from Thorndale family support centre, a specialist childcare and parenting facility run by the Salvation Army.

Image caption Dawn Richardson, director of Thorndale family support centre which worked with the couple

Based in Belfast, it is the only one of its kind in Ireland. Currently over 50% of its residents have learning disabilities and it receives referrals from social services across the country.

Director Dawn Richardson said it was important to make sure that no parent is discriminated against.

"We feel parents with a learning disability can potentially make very good parents," she said.

The BBC has seen a copy of the assessment carried out by the Thorndale team.

In contrast to reports by social workers eight years ago - Thorndale found the couple "embraced the opportunity to be assessed and demonstrated their ability to handle and interact with their baby appropriately."

For Mary it was a positive learning experience which helped in their fight to keep their baby. She says it is a pity the service wasn't made available to them years ago.

In a statement the health trust concerned said that in most cases, following an assessment of the individual cases, it seeks to provide support services to families so they can provide good care for their children while ensuring they remain safe.

Image caption Maureen Piggot, director of Mencap NI, said cases such as Mary and Peter's are on the increase

"This will often involve difficult and balanced decisions which must be taken in order to support parents coping in a range of difficult circumstances but also to ensure that the needs of children continue to be met," the statement added.

However Maureen Piggot, director of Mencap NI, says not enough support is being offered to people with learning disabilities who are trying to keep their children rather than having them placed in care.

She said that while the protection of children is paramount, adults with learning disabilities must be offered the same degree of protection and support from social services.

"This is an increasingly worrying development where we are being contacted by parents who have a moderate to mild learning disability but who are finding that their ability to be parents is being challenged by Social Services and the court system," she said.