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The Serial Removal of Children from Young Mothers – is this right?

Maureen N Obi-Ezekpazu, FRSA, Barrister and Mediator, Family Matters, asks what can be done to help the plight of young mothers who have had several children permanently removed.

Maureen Obi-Ezekpazu, Barrister, Family Matters

Maureen N Obi-Ezekpazu FRSA, Barrister and Mediator, Family Matters

On 3rd December 2012 the Family Justice Council met for its 6th annual debate, held at Central Hall, Westminster. It was chaired by Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Thorpe, the then Deputy Chair of the Family Justice Council. This was an especially important debate, coming as it did at a time when reforms of the family court system were being formulated, because it touched on a subject that simply is not addressed by the reformers or anywhere else in the Child Protection system. The Council met to debate this motion: Women who have children removed to care, year after year, are being failed by a system unable to respond to them as vulnerable adults needing support in their own right". A transcript of the debate is here.

Dr Karen Broadhurst of University of Manchester proposed the motion and presented preliminary findings from a pilot study she was undertaking between 2008 and 2012. The study focused on 30 mothers under the age of 25 years who had had, between them, 116 children removed into care.

These figures are stark but because they concern a very small sample of women, perhaps they do not reveal the true nature of the problem. That problem is that large numbers of children and families are not being helped to stay together but are processed by the family courts on the basis of an initial negative assessment of their parenting capacity or of a psychological assessment of them.

Another participant in the debate, Tina Wilson, an Area Safeguarding Manager, provided the following statistical data from Suffolk, where she practises, for financial year ending 2011/2012: in that period 34 babies were removed from 24 mothers. Of those babies 24 had siblings who had themselves been removed. Of the mothers four had seventh and eighth babies.

Ana Wright, Independent Consultant in Education and Children's Services, spoke in favour of the motion and provided the following statistical information for Reading Council: 30 mothers, aged 26 years, had had between them 106 infants removed.

The cost of an internal foster placement, per infant, was £66,000. The cost of an external foster placement, per infant, was £102,000. The average number of children removed per mother was three. The average cost of removal per mother was £200,000 (for an internal foster placement) and £300,000 (for an external foster placement).

In respect of a mother who had had eight children removed the cost was between £500,000 and £800,000  to place her babies. It is interesting that the average cost of assessment of parenting capacity of a mother was £4,000.

These figures and samples are small and it is suggested that if all local authorities  in England and Wales were approached and asked to provide the same information the extent of this problem would become clearer. However, even on the information provided here, there is real cause for concern.

Dr Broadhurst and Claire Mason have published a paper in the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law on 21st June 2013, pages 291- 304, entitled Maternal outcasts: raising the profile of women who are vulnerable to successive, compulsory removals of their children – a plea for preventative action. It is a worthy read and the first real piece of research into this deeply hidden issue.

According to CAFASS and local authority records, 25% of all looked after children are from mothers who have had successive children removed from their care.  Those mothers, according to the available information, are young and vulnerable mothers, mostly under 25.

After completion of care proceedings there is no support provided to these mothers. Practitioners in our family court justice system will no doubt point to the final care plans of children who have a plan for adoption where it is said repeatedly that support will be provided to the parents. The statistical data suggest this is not what in practice happens and this failure is perhaps a contributing factor to the removal of subsequent babies.

Why raise this now?
In many cases where the writer has represented a young and vulnerable mother there has been a lack of resources that specifically address these mothers' needs. The writer has made a number of requests for information from local authorities on the provisions that are made for the very young and vulnerable mother. The answers have been the same: nothing specific. Young mothers often present with a range of needs but the prevailing need is never addressed: to be assisted in a way that allows them to reach their full potential as parents. The one-fits-all system automatically operates with mothers being placed either in mother and baby foster placements or residential assessment centres. Neither of these on the whole addresses these mothers' needs. Whilst the needs of the children are paramount, in the instance of a new mother and baby it is the needs of the mother that must be addressed in order to ensure the child's needs are safeguarded. Both are equally important and neither can usurp the other without detriment to both.

We are in the midst of enormous change in the child protection system. All parts of the system are affected and are in various states of transition. These changes immediately affect families. There appears to be little parental influence, by which I mean asking parents what will work for them. Equally there has been no acknowledgment within the changes of the parents' ability to know and act in the best interest of their children. It is worrying to say the least that this process of change is happening and those whom it will affect have not been consulted. A family court system which sees the child as separate and standing apart from its birth family is unsustainable.  It is my considered opinion that this mindset is the primary reason why parents have not been consulted. The plight of these women and men affected by multiple removals has come into focus for me because I have, as a practitioner, acted for many over the last 25 years and the outcome for these families has been poor. I fear the debate is long overdue and perhaps late since the changes to the family court justice system are in full swing. Yet I am  hopeful that practitioners will acknowledge that this as a real problem and one which requires  immediate attention.

I suggest that the following are primary reasons why the debate on the serial removal of children from young mothers must be considered at a level at which possible solutions can be formulated.

  1. The passage and coming into force of the Children and Families Act 2014.
  2. The 26 week time limit on proceedings in care proceedings.
  3. The placement of children for adoption at the outset of proceedings.
  4. The restriction on the use of expert/outside evidence – inability of parent to challenge parenting capacity assessment undertaken by social services.
  5. The quality of the parenting capacity assessment where cost has driven local authorities to carry out shorter assessment or to rely upon outdated information from previous proceedings in respect of a sibling. 
  6. The inability of children and adult services to work together where a parent has her own care needs.
  7. The difficulty of obtaining an adult services assessment and care plan for vulnerable adults who are parents.
  8. The coming into force of the Care Act on the 14th May 2014.
  9. The establishment of the new family court on 22nd April 2014.
  10. The research and subsequent  production of the CanParent report in May 2014 as it relates to universal parenting classes.
  11. The commercialisation of parenting.
  12. The further restriction on public funding.
  13. The LAA's funding code's clear steer away from work that seeks to improve a parent's ability to parent (therapy is not to be paid for by the State in the form of public funding being used for this purpose).
  14. The reduced numbers of experienced lawyers representing the interests of local authorities, parents and children largely due to the real reduction in income from representing publicly funded clients.
  15. CAFCASS becoming part of the Ministry of Justice – query whether it retains its independence and ability to advocate fearlessly for the child.
  16. The movement of significant amounts of funding from social care to adoption services to the detriment of the birth families.

Solutions: better outcome for children and families
In these circumstances no solution is an easy one but in the goal of providing for better outcomes for children and families there is cause for hope. What can practitioners do to assist clients and ensure that the family is promoted as a unified whole?  The starting point is to acknowledge that multiple removals from a limited number of vulnerable parents is a real problem that threatens the family and family life as we know it. It is essential as a practitioner to recognise that when you represent a mother/vulnerable parent who has already had a child removed because of a negative assessment, this fact of removal will be the single most difficult hurdle for that parent to surmount and you will need to address it creatively. The use of residential assessments centres, mother and baby foster placements and psychological assessments do not, on the data available, meet the needs of this identified parent group.  Thinking outside of the traditional boxes will be a vital key to finding individual solutions for these parents. The one-fits-all system is unreliable as it produces poor outcomes for children and families.  There exist a number of organisations that offer assistance to parents to great effect. I suggest that practitioners visit organisations such as Parenting UK, which has as members many organisations that work directly with parents, finding solutions for their particular parenting issue. Another organisation that works directly with parents and assists in finding long term solutions to parenting issues facing poverty is ATD Fourth World. Poverty impacts on a parent's ability to meet their family's need.  It is my considered view that practitioners' ability to assist their clients will be enhanced by working and obtaining a greater understanding of the issues families face, by becoming attuned to the work of parenting organisations across the UK and by working creatively to find solutions for their family clients.

There is much to learn from organisations such as Parenting UK and ATD Fourth World and how they interface with the parenting community. When that interface translates into practical help for the family this will and does impact on the outcomes for children and families. These organisations rarely feature within the family court justice system. Many of the organisations who are members of Parenting UK or ADT Fourth World (there are many others not highlighted here) have their own individual attributes and qualities befitting a more bespoken service to those parents identified as in need of their services. The results are outstanding. There are also pre-court proceedings initiatives which have resulted in better outcomes for children.

The full data from the research undertaken by Dr Broadhurst and Claire Mason are yet to be published. It is understood that the data will be available later this year. It is sure to make interesting reading and will be, in the writer's view, a firm foundation from which to spring innovative solutions for this very real family dilemma.

Maureen N Obi-Ezekpazu, FRSA  is a Barrister and Mediator at Family Matters.