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Substituted Parenting: What does this mean for parents with learning disabilities in the family court context?

Substituted Parenting Report Cover

Press release issued: 7 June 2023

Research finds that “too much” support for parents with learning disabilities is considered harmful for the children

The results and recommendations from the first study to explore what ‘substituted parenting’ means for parents with learning disabilities in the context of the family court are published today. The report, by researchers at the University of Bristol, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has sought to develop a common understanding of, and clarity about, the meaning and use of the term 'substituted parenting' by legal and social work professionals. It also sought to understand how parents with learning disabilities understood the term, the associated risks and how to mitigate them.

Parents with learning disabilities/difficulties (LD) are overrepresented in the family courts and are more than twice as likely to have their children removed, rather than supported to remain at home. The term ‘substituted parenting’ appears in family court judgments involving parents with LD as the reason for removing the children. However, published court judgments show no definition of the term or evidence of analysis of the perceived risk, or exploration of options to address that risk. This lack of clarity raised concerns regarding the fairness and transparency of the family court system in relation to cases involving parents with learning disabilities and led to the research study.

The report, written by Beth Tarleton, Senior Lecturer in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol and Co-ordinator of the Working Together with Parents Network and Nadine Tilbury, Policy Officer for the Working Together with Parents Network, is very timely, given the recent judgment of the Court of Appeal in the case of Re H (Parents with Learning Difficulties: Risk of Harm) [2023]. The judgement states: “Judges need to be wary of arguments based on the concept of “substituted parenting”. [para 65]

The research highlights the importance of proper evidence and analysis when considering cases which could result in the permanent removal of children from their parents.  Assertions that a package of support would be ‘substituted parenting ‘or ‘parenting by professionals’, must be evidence-based and specific to that family.  

The research, with input from an advisory group made up of parents, also shows the need to ensure that the proceedings and the concerns held by professionals are as accessible as possible to parents, and that any support that is offered meets the needs of that individual family.

The research also found:

  • Parents recognised the need for support but found the term unhelpful
  • Professionals saw the term as derogatory, value laden and lacking clear definition
  • Professionals' concerns about the [high] level of support were based on theoretical, rather than actual, support
  • Analysis of professionals' concerns, whether about cost, duration, children's needs changing, or other matters, was absent in practice

A policy briefing lays out the main policy implications and recommendations for practice that arise from the research findings, in particular, ways for professionals to support rather than supplant parents. Key recommendations are made around the use of the term ‘substituted parenting’, the identification of options to address the perceived risk of the proposed support amounting to ‘substituted parenting’, attachment theory, long-term support, the use of labels or flags as indicators of need, the use of terminology, training and awareness.

Co-author Nadine Tilbury said: ‘Deciding that a child must be removed should be the end point, not the start point. Whatever the eventual outcome for the family, they are entitled to a fair process which excludes pre-judgment and includes proper consideration of options.’

Sarah Castle, the Official Solicitor, said: ‘The permanent removal of a child from their family is one of the most serious decisions a court can take. The research reminds us all of the need for this decision to be taken on the basis of robust evidence and not merely assumptions or conjecture.

 I support the recommendations contained within the report and will be ensuring my family case managers are briefed on the outcome of this research and its recommendations for consideration in future cases.’

Further information

Further information 

The Working Together with Parents Network has a project website which includes useful resources, including the Good Practice Guidance on working with parents with a learning disability:    

Further information about this research is available at the link below:

Contact the researchers:

Nadine Tilbury, Policy Officer for the Working Together with Parents Network, Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.

Beth Tarleton, Senior Lecturer, Co-ordinator of the Working Together with Parents Network, Programme Director for the Masters in Policy Research and Masters in Social Work Research, Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.  

About the funder

This project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

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