Skip to main content

Vulnerable Birth Mothers and Recurrent Care Proceedings

Final Main Report

Social workers, family lawyers and judges have long recognised that some women to return court as respondents in care proceedings, having experienced the removal of a child in a previous set of care proceedings. A proportion of women are repeat clients of the family justice system and lose multiple children to public care and adoption. This causes untold distress to women, their partners, children and extended networks and in addition, places exceptional demands on services. Yet, prior to the study reported here, the scale of this problem was unknown and there was an absence of systematic analysis of the reasons behind women’s return to court. Professor Pamela Cox has captured research and policy silence on this topic in her fitting description of repeat losses to care as “a problem with no name” (Cox, 2012).

In the same year, a network of concerned academics and practitioners brought together by Dr. Mike Shaw and Ms. Sophie Kershaw sparked something of a revolution in thinking about family court proceedings. A community of interest was first hosted by the Family Drug and Alcohol Court team, at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, leading to the publication of a series of papers in Family Law in 2014 (Shaw et al., 2014; Harwin et al., 2014; Broadhurst and Mason, 2014). The subject of ’repeat removals’ was firmly placed on policy and practitioner agendas, with searching questions raised about what more could be done to prevent this negative cycle.

In this report we document the findings from the first comprehensive study of recurrent care proceedings in England focused on birth mothers. Following a successful feasibility study that demonstrated the research value of national electronic records held centrally by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), the Nuffield Foundation granted further funding for a substantive 2-year study (2014-2016). Aiming to establish the first estimate of the scale ofwomen’s return to court and to understand the factors behind this, the study combined analyses of population-wide court records and in-depth interviews with birth mothers, with intensive reading of a large sub-set of court files. Further fundingwas provided by the Foundation (2016-2017) to support dissemination of the
findings and to engage in further work with agencies to ensure maximum translation of key messages.

Some of the findings we present in this report will no doubt be difficult to hear, not least, that a sizeable proportion of the women identified as repeat clients have been in the care of the state as children themselves. From women’s first person accounts, we report on the sensitive topics of reproductive decision-making and women’s experiences of removal at birth. We also consider barriers to mental health services that foil women’s self-help efforts after child removal. The study raises
searching questions about the accountability of social work services and the courts to this marginal group of women, particularly in relation to treatment recommendations made during the course of care proceedings. Readers may find it useful to consult articles published by the team during the course of this study, which include a discussion of what we have termed the ‘collateral consequences’ of child removal (Broadhurst and Mason, 2017). A consideration of the negative consequences of child removal, helps explain why women are at risk of appearing in repeat care proceedings.

In Section 4,we consider the implications for children born into a cycle of recurrent care proceedings, again presenting the preliminary picture of health, welfare and legal outcomes for England. Based on the limited data available in case files, infants born into a cycle of recurrent care proceedings are more likely to be ’born into care’ and to be placed separately from siblings who enter care at the same time.

They are less likely to have direct contact with their birth parents and have poorer health outcomes than the general population of children. Recurrent care proceedings affect adults but also children, and as we write, we know little of the life chances of these infants and children.

This is the first study of recurrent care proceedings and as such, the study aimed to generate research questions to guide further work. A series of linked studies, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, are now under way that build on the initial work of the team and which promise new and equally important insights. Professor Ruth Gilbert and Dr. Linda W¼laars at University College London (UCL) are now working with members of the research team to link family court and health records, with the aim of gaining a far clearer view of women’s health needs and interaction with health services. The team is also working with Professor Marian Brandon at the University of East Anglia to examine the position of fathers in repeat care proceedings. Further afield, Australian colleagues have commenced a new study looking at infant removals and pre-natal reporting, also with an interest in repeat cases. This project is led by Dr. Stephanie Taplin at the Australian Catholic University, funded by the Australian Research Council. However, many more questions remain unanswered particularly in relation to the potential of emerging preventative initiatives, including alternative court models, to intercept a pattern of recurrent care proceedings through tailored support for women’s rehabilitation.

As we write, a vocabulary of recurrent proceedings has found its way into mainstream policy, practice and research literatures, and sparked major investment in preventative services, such as Pause (McCracken et al., 2017), Positive Choices (Cox et al., 2017), and Gwent Reflect in Wales. However, far more needs to be done to mainstream new preventative initiatives and to examine their impact in the longer term.

New initiatives, led by pioneering practitioners who bring first-hand experience to the design of preventative solutions, need more than skeletal funding if they are to deliver durable solutions for children, families and communities. It will be important to make very good use of the data routinely generated by the Pause initiative, now established in multiple sites in England, to ascertain the longer-term impact of this programme. Working alongside the research intermediary, Research in Practice, we are now developing tools for frontline practitioners. A clearer understanding of the complex grief responses that arise from child removal is urgent, as well as a more humane approach to the removal of infants at birth.

In April 2016, a “looming crisis” of care proceedings was described by the President of the Family Division (Munby, 2016). In response to this, the research team produced an updated picture of the contribution of ‘repeat mother’ cases to rising care demand. Although we did not find a significant increase in the rate of repeat cases, neither did we find any decrease. Additionally, as more mothers, in general, come before the courts in care proceedings, this increases the number at risk of entering repeat cases in the future. Over time, the impact of new initiatives will most likely be more evident, but there is further work to be done to reduce recidivism in the family justice system.

We would encourage readers to consult our published papers to-date, which are signposted in the body of this report. Further publications will be published on the website of the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University as they come to fruition.