A new study has revealed how many mothers lose successive infants to public care, explains Dr Karen Broadhurst.
Speak to any judge around the country and he or she will readily recount a case of a vulnerable mother who has appeared in the family court on successive occasions, losing infant after infant to public care or adoption.
Most commonly entrapped in an exploitative or abusive adult relationship herself, and suffering problems of drug and alcohol addiction, anecdotal depiction is of a mother unable (or unassisted) to exit a pattern of repeat pregnancy – followed by repeat removal of infants into state care.
But until now, the size of this problem has remained hidden.
Between 2007 and 2013 some 7,143 birth mothers were repeat clients of the family court, linked to 15,645 recurrent care applications concerning 22,790 infants and children. One in three applications to the family court for care orders is linked to a mother who has a pattern of repeat appearances in the family court. In some parts of the country the figure is significantly higher.
Yet these statistics probably understate the scale of this crisis – reliable data concerning completed cases is not available before 2007. Over the next two years, further de-identified records will be added to the team’s data set to provide additional evidence.
Worryingly, intervals between repeat legal proceedings are very short – mothers return to the family court following the birth of another infant within a very short space of time. We found that the median interval was approximately 17.5 months between one care application and the next, which leaves these women with very little time to engage in their own rehabilitation to the extent that the family court can be convinced of positive change.
Our initial observations have found that mothers are young and often very young – 50% are aged under 24 and 19% are teenagers – at the first care application. Pregnancies follow in short succession.
In 42% of cases, we found that the local authority made an application to the family court for care proceedings at, or very close to, an infant’s birth. Where an infant is removed at birth, mothers (and their partners) will frequently be granted supervised contact, but in very few cases are infants returned to mothers.
More often, the local authority will make progress to place the infant on a permanent basis. Where an infant is adopted, it is very unusual for the court to sanction any ongoing face-to-face contact between birth mother and infant.
Further research work will be carried out over the next two years to confirm these patterns, but initial observations raise a number of very important questions that require detailed analysis to inform a prevention agenda.
A pattern of rapid repeat pregnancies carries known health risks for mothers and infants. In addition, for this population of mothers and their infants, there are further profound social consequences because: a) mothers will most likely lose their infants to care on a permanent basis with either restricted or no direct contact; and b) siblings who enter care on a sequential basis may have less chance of being placed together, particularly in the case of multiple siblings.
The size of this national problem coupled with the stark human and economic costs demands that policy makers address this problem urgently.
All too often birth mothers are left to their own fate after care proceedings, because formal services withdraw support. Infants or children are removed safely to care – so statutory requirements to work in partnership with mothers and their informal networks are greatly reduced.
However, our research suggests that these mothers often turn to higher use of drugs and alcohol and may become homeless following the loss of infants or children. These events also heighten the risk of unplanned pregnancy.
Our collaborators observing similar patterns in the US have drawn on the notion of the ‘replacement baby’ to explain why mothers appear stuck in a seemingly self-defeating pattern of behaviour. A further pregnancy may be a natural response to coping with the magnitude of loss of an infant or child.
A range of inspiring new projects is emerging across the UK linked to the research team’s practitioner network hosted by the Tavistock Clinic London. These projects are in their infancy, but emerging evidence is that intervention during a first set of care proceedings or shortly after can help mothers delay a subsequent pregnancy and engage in a holistic programme of rehabilitation such that they maximise their chances of regaining their parenting capacity.
As innovative projects continue to emerge in the UK they will benefit greatly from a fuller understanding of the needs, risks and prognosis for change of recurrent mothers based on large-scale data sets. The research team is embarking on a further programme of research to fill this knowledge gap.
Mothers who appear and re-appear before the family court are unlikely to generate much public sympathy. However, the scale of the problem that we have found indicates the need for a concerted, national policy response.
Where a negative cycle of recurrent proceedings continues, the damaging effects of care proceedings – which in these cases are multiplied – may eliminate the chances of these young women maturing sufficiently to become mothers caring for their own children.
- The research was conducted by Dr Karen Broadhurst and Dr Mark Pilling of the University of Manchester, Dr Judith Harwin and Dr Bachar Alrouh of Brunel University; and Dr Mike Shaw of Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust. Funding was provided by the Nuffield Foundation. Initial observations have been published online and with open access in the journal Family Law.