Researchers from Lancaster University, Brunel University London and the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust have updated the findings of a 2014 study that confirmed a “hidden population” of mothers caught up in a cycle of family court proceedings, with one child after another being removed from their mother’s care.
The new research also identifies for the first time the relationship between young motherhood and the risk of court ordered removal of children – as well as new statistics concerning removal at birth.
The researchers found that at least one in four women will return to the family court, having previously lost a child through court order. The chances of having a child removed increase to at least one in three for women who are teenagers at the birth of their first child.
The team – led by Professor Karen Broadhurst from Lancaster University – is examining further detailed case file review work and the study will conclude in June 2016. The study uses electronic records held by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) – and findings are based on all care applications made by Local Authorities in England over a seven-year period from 2007 to 2014.
The researchers found more than 13,000 infants subject to legal proceedings at or close to birth – ie within 31 days – between 2007 and 2014.
The report highlights that once a first child has been removed, subsequent children taken into care are likely to be removed from their mother’s care closer to the birth. These children are also much more likely to be adopted,
meaning that the mother will lose all direct contact with her child.
Prof Broadhurst and her team say that, while there is international concern about the issue, to date there has been little research or detailed understanding of the nature or scale of the issue.
The research establishes that many women become pregnant again either while still in care proceedings with a first child – or very shortly after a first set of proceedings has finished. The new findings focusing on pregnancy intervals confirm that a pattern of rapid repeat pregnancy is associated with repeat care proceedings.
“Rapid repeat pregnancy carries health risks for both mother and child,” said Prof Broadhurst.
“When we put these findings together, a very concerning picture emerges.”
She added that, that after a child has been removed from the mother’s care, the mother is unlikely to receive the required level of help to bring about the changes needed, because agencies are not under any statutory obligation to provide comprehensive post-removal support. The study finds that many of the women had experienced very difficult childhoods themselves – and were then severely emotionally damaged by the removal of their baby.
“We need policy change to mandate help for women to overcome these difficulties – otherwise the human and economic costs are huge and the family court will continue to recycle some of the youngest women,” said Prof Broadhurst.
“In addition, the number of infants removed at birth is increasing and we need to understand why this is so – although more children generally are entering care, there is a disproportionate increase of infants subject to legal proceedings at birth.”
The team is now working with colleagues in the US and Australia to establish parallel programmes of research – and understand whether similar patterns can be seen in countries that have similar child protection and family court processes.
Prof Broadhurst also said the number of teenage mothers captured in the dataset was very concerning.
“How does court-ordered removal impact on women’s own developmental journey to adulthood?” she said
“It is evident that these girls – many still children themselves – simply do not understand the court process,” she added.
The researchers warn that, without further evaluation and far wider roll out of preventative programmes, it is “highly probable” that local authorities and family courts will continue to see a sizeable population of mothers reappear in the child care system.
The team says it welcomes initiatives, including an intensive support pathway as part of the National Family Court (Early FDAC) and the Pause Initiative –
but says more is needed to ensure that such pioneering initiatives are firmly established and sustained in mainstream practice – and without Government investment, new programmes are not likely to be sustained.
The study Connecting events in time to identify a hidden population: Birth mothers and their children in recurrent care proceedings in England is funded by the Nuffield Foundation and is published in the British Journal of Social Work.
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