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Vulnerable birth mothers and recurrent care proceedings – final report

Research highlights potential of preventative initiatives for vulnerable birth mothers

A robust evaluation of preventative initiatives that help women who are at risk of repeat care proceedings can improve learning and encourage wider roll out of best practice, according to new research.

The report, Vulnerable Birth Mothers and Recurrent Care Proceedings, calls for investment into data collection so that local authorities and the courts can identify and measure recurrence. It was produced by theCentre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University and draws heavily on Cafcass data.

The research also describes preventative initiatives such as Pause and Suffolk County Council's Positive Choices, which offer intensive post-removal support to women. The schemes allow alternative ways of reaching birth mothers while more mainstream services suffer from 'non-engagement'. However, the impact of these programmes has not resulted in a reduction in the volume of repeat care proceedings so far.

The report also notes that preventative programmes are being largely funded at the discretion of local authorities or charitable organisations. Due to a lack of analysis of recurrent cases, policy and practice leads are currently unable to efficiently establish the impact of local innovation.

The report finds: 

Scale of the problem
Approximately one in four birth mothers appearing as respondents in an index set of section 31 care proceedings are expected to reappear in a subsequent set of proceedings within seven years. 60 per cent of repeat proceedings involve at least one child aged less than four weeks. Approximately 70 per cent of women who return to court do so in proceedings that concern an infant who is born subsequent to, or during previous proceedings. Between 2007/08 and 2015/16, 25 per cent of repeat care proceedings were issued prior to the final hearing of an earlier set of proceedings. An extra 35 per cent were issued within one year.

Impact of childhood care experience
66 per cent of recurrent mothers had experienced neglect in their childhood. 67 per cent had experienced emotional abuse, 52 per cent physical abuse, and 53 per cent sexual abuse. Women who had been in care as children felt that their childhood history was held against them in assessments of their own parenting capacity.

Impact of child removal and access to rehabilitative services
Child removal, at least in the short-term, resulted in an increase in women's emotional difficulties and therefore heightened vulnerability to a further unplanned pregnancy. Most of the women interviewed wanted help earlier in pregnancy, even when a child had been removed from their care previously. Lack of access to mental health services created a deep sense of injustice for women. They feared that professionals would require evidence of improvements in mental health in any future assessment of their ability as parents.

Of those women who had made marked changes in their lives, common factors included:

The report recommends investment to improve the data and evaluation relating to preventative programmes. It also argues for improved awareness within mainstream mental health services of the impact of child removal.

Richard Green, Child Care Policy Manager at Cafcass, and a member of the report's advisory group, said:

"The study made extensive use of the information held by Cafcass about our cases. It's a really important study with implications for policy and practice across professional networks and the family justice system."

For the final summary report, click here.