Substituted Parenting

Substituted parenting – what does this mean in the family court? 

We are very grateful to the Nuffield Foundation for funding this project, which will be running from November 2021 to April 2023. 

This project will investigate the concept of substituted parenting and what it means in the family court context. 

Parents with learning disabilities (LD) are legally entitled to support from statutory services. Long-term support may be needed to keep some families together and to help parents raise their children safely. However, while courts are confirming the right to parental support, a shift in thinking about that support seems to be emerging. 

The term ‘substituted parenting’ is being used by local authorities when they believe the parental support needed is excessive. They assert that the level of support is detrimental for children as it confuses them as to who the parent is. 

It is unclear how the use of the term developed and there is no clear guidance on what the courts understand by the term. There is no research on this issue or on the potential for support being labelled ‘substituted parenting’ becoming a discriminatory policy based on cost, prejudice, or other inappropriate factors. 

The project’s overall aim is to build consensus about the term ‘substituted parenting’ and how it is used and understood by legal and social work professionals and parents with LD, with a view to ensuring that policies and practices are transparent and fair – in the interests, ultimately, of the children’s welfare. 

Collaboration will guide the research as professionals and parents’ views will be relied upon through advisory groups. A series of interviews will be conducted with a range of professionals and parents. These answers will be subject to thematic analysis to identify patterns and then discussed in the advisory groups to further draw out their understanding of the data. 

The project team will develop a range of outputs to disseminate among legal and social welfare professionals as well as parents with LD. Emerging findings will be shared with the professional advisory group alongside an open access report, briefing papers, journal articles and webinars. A short film and an easy read briefing will be produced in conjunction with the parent advisory group. Outputs will be shared via social media to ensure they reach as wide an audience as possible. 

Substituted parenting: what does this mean in the family court? - Nuffield Foundation 

Comment and analysis - 3 December 2021

'Substituted parenting' – a term with no apparent consensus, clarity, consistency of meaning, or transparency as to its application by the family courts. – Comment and analysis (


For further information, please contact Nadine Tilbury. Email: 


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