Putting it Simply
The avoidance of jargon is essential if parents with literacy difficulties are going to be able to access their parenting assessments - many of these parents will have a learning disability.
Have you ever been in a meeting and heard an acronym you didn’t understand but felt you could not ask what it meant for fear of looking stupid? – that is a very common experience of vulnerable parents when they are receiving services from social care or involved in Care Proceedings. They can be attending important meetings about their life and not understand what the professionals are saying.
Previously when working as an ISW, I would write reports for Court and think I needed to write in a certain way. I wanted my report to look ‘professional’ but I have since reflected the language I used was, to some extent, attempting to convey my expertise to the other professionals. I was not thinking enough about the person who needed to understand my report the most – the parent.
When completing Addendums, parents are often asked what changes have they made since the last assessment and whether they followed the recommendations. Frequently I found that parents had not understood (or in some cases never read) the original assessment report. One parent said....
‘I don’t read those reports with the long words – they scare me and I don’t understand them’.
Another parent with a learning disability told me....
‘The expert said I needed a course of CBT but I didn’t know what that meant and I felt stupid asking’.
Comments like these prompted me to re-think the way I wrote reports.
A parenting assessment can be one of the most stressful experiences anyone can face due to the serious long term implications for the child and the parent. It is often a painful process and very confusing especially if you have cognitive difficulties. The report should help parents to understand their strengths and difficulties and it is vital the parent can engage and participate in the assessment. In Re D , Munby P relied on the key principles of Gillen J  and said these 'must be taken into account by courts when determining cases involving parents with a learning disability’. Of reports he said “Steps must be taken to ensure that parents have a meaningful and informed access to reports…” and “All parts of the Family justice system should take care as to the language and vocabulary that is utilised”.
The Good Practice Guidance (2021) sets out five key features of good practice in working with parents with learning disabilities and the first of these is ‘accessible information and communication’ . It also reminds us that 'it is a legal requirement under the Human Rights Act 1998 that parents should be able to participate fully in the process.’
It is all too easy for professionals to default to using jargon, but we need to keep focussed on who needs to read and understand the report. We need to write in a way that includes the parent rather than excludes them. Putting things simply can make the difference between exclusion and inclusion.
We need to consider everyday terms we use within Family Proceedings such as ‘contact’, ‘threshold’, ‘safeguarding’ and the numerous acronyms such as ICPC and PLO and ask ‘what meaning does this have for the parent?’ But we need to go further and change the ‘professional’ language to terms which are easy for the parent to understand. For example…
up and down
now and then
If we do use terms which may be difficult for the parent to understand, the assessor should explain what they mean by giving specific examples which make sense to the parent.
Simplifying language is not as easy as it sounds and it takes time. But once you start to write in this way, it does get easier.
In 2016 when creating ParentAssess we listened to what parents were telling us about their assessment reports and this feedback was incorporated into the ParentAssess framework.
ParentAssess encourages assessors to write reports in a simple way, and a separate Short Parent Report is provided which covers 3 points:
What I think you do well
What I am concerned about
What I am going to tell the court
This short additional report has been praised in the courts and it certainly helpful to those parents who are overwhelmed by lengthy reports but in my view it is also important that the main parenting capacity report is also written in simple language.
ParentAssess provides a table using a simple traffic light system which helps the parent understand the main report and findings in a very visual way. It clearly shows the parent where their strengths are but also the areas of concern.
Parents have found this way of explaining the outcome extremely helpful and many have said they understand the assessment process better. Solicitors have found the ParentAssess format makes discussing the outcome with their client much easier.
One learning disability advocate has welcomed the ParentAssess Framework. Cat Rowe from AdvoCATe Services said
“ParentAssess is designed with parents in mind. There are so many long Court reports parents are expected to read and understand - a parenting assessment is one of the most important documents they will need to go through. ParentAssess encourages assessors to think about how to explain the process and outcome to parents using traffic lights and a separate ‘easy to understand’ Parent Report. To me, this is fundamental as it’s vital the parent has the opportunity to understand what the concerns are, what is required of them and also what the outcome is”.
Advocacy for parents with a learning disability is of course very important. However, a good starting point is for the professionals to re-read reports and consider the language used, and if necessary, change it so that the content makes sense to all the parties. Putting things simply is actually not that simple and requires diligence and a willingness to accept reports which are written in accessible language.
Re D (A Child) (No 3)  EWFC 1
Re G and A (Care Order: Freeing Order: Parents with a Learning Disability)  NIFam 8
Working Together with Parents Network (WTPN) update of the DoH/DfES Good practice guidance on working with parents with a learning disability (2007) (Revised 2021)