Women in Care Proceedings: new statistics indicate investment in prevention is insufficient to stop return to court

Baby hand holding an adult's finger

New research indicates that women in care proceedings continue to face a high risk of re-appearing in family courts – because investment in preventative services is not yet sufficient. When women appear in family court care proceedings, they can lose children permanently from their care.

According to new research, more than 95,000 mothers appeared in care proceedings in England and Wales, during the past decade.

And, say the researchers, too many of these mothers appeared in more than one set of care proceedings.

The main findings from the new report, published in English and Welsh, are:

· Almost a decade on from the first research with this focus, approximately 1 in every 4 mothers are at risk of return. This risk rises to 1 in 3 for the youngest mothers

· Mothers in England and Wales face the same risk of appearing in care proceedings, as they did when earlier benchmark studies were published

The new report builds on a programme of work led by Professor Karen Broadhurst and the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University and is published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.

The team first captured the scale of repeat care proceedings in 2015. This programme of work prompted multiple new preventative services at a local level, preventing return to the family courts for many women.

However, the new statistics indicate that as yet, new preventative services are not doing enough to prevent care proceedings, because national statistics regarding return remain largely the same in England and Wales.

Although service evaluation clearly indicates that timely and intensive therapeutic help can help women avoid the loss of their children, help is not consistently available to all women in England and Wales. In addition, budget cuts, have meant some services have closed.

In addition, the actual number of mothers in recurrent proceedings has markedly increased since 2015, because more and more families have found themselves involved in care proceedings.

The new benchmarking report also offers the following new evidence for England and Wales:

· At a first repeat set of care proceedings concerning babies, few babies will return to their parents’ care. In the largest proportion of cases, a plan for adoption is agreed.

· In contrast, very few supervision orders are made for babies, with these orders typically made when children return to their parents’ care.

· Furthermore, the risk of mothers returning to court is higher if the first set of proceedings results in a plan for adoption.

· The new statistics also evidence that after a first return to court, the risk of another return increases.

New findings are also very concerning because a high proportion (more than 40%) of mothers who appear in repeat care proceedings with a baby, are estimated to be aged 14-19 years when they first gave birth.

In this new report, regional differences in rates of recurrent proceedings were also examined. In England, there is a divide between London and the South, and the Midlands and the North, which corresponds with related research on new-born babies in care proceedings in England.

The starkest differences were found between London and the North East. The impact of budget cuts and reduction in preventative services in the North East has been widely reported. In addition, the North East currently has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies.

The study, published by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and carried out by the Family Justice Data Partnership – a collaboration between Lancaster University and Swansea University – is based on mothers who appeared in care proceedings in England and Wales between 2011/12 and 2020/21.

Lancaster University researchers, Dr Bachar Alrouh and Dr Mariam Abouelenin, were the lead researchers on the new report.

Principal Investigator Professor Karen Broadhurst said: “Our research team first uncovered the scale of recurrent care proceedings in 2015 – very welcome practice developments have followed, exemplifying the best of relational practice. However, new statistics indicate much more needs to be done if we are to provide all mothers in care proceedings with the opportunity to overcome the many hardships that characterise their lives. The growth in the number of mothers in care proceedings, means that excellent services are not reaching enough mothers.

“I am concerned about the age profile of the young women in care proceedings and their life chances beyond care proceedings, given the highly stigmatising and isolating experience which is child removal. We know from related research that many mothers have been in the care of the state themselves as children.

“The best efforts of practice pioneers are currently compromised by short-term funding due to a lack of political will to invest properly in the lives of the most vulnerable. I fear the outlook is gloomy, given acute inflationary pressures on families (food, energy, housing) and no material uplift in funding for children’s services in the face of increasing need. These twin pressures will be faced most severely in the most deprived communities which are concentrated in the North. In the absence of a strong foundational economy, we are likely to see many poor families experiencing the removal of their children.”

Director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Lisa Harker said: “This study indicates that vulnerable women – who have experienced the trauma of care proceedings, and in many cases the removal of their children – are still not being adequately supported to make positive changes and rebuild their lives. Despite almost a decade of research into recurrence and associated innovation in services, not enough has changed for these women. They are not even being given a fighting chance of avoiding further proceedings. While ground-breaking support services are available – without which the number of mothers in recurrent proceedings would undoubtedly be higher – they are only meeting a fraction of the need. This situation won’t be helped by austerity measures threatening to limit public services even further.

“What is particularly worrying is that a large majority of women involved in recurrent proceedings are teenagers. They are likely to have a significant need for support; they will be poorly prepared for motherhood, both emotionally and financially, will have their own development needs, and might have been in care themselves.”

The research was based on full-service population data produced routinely by Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru. Records were accessed via the SAIL (Secure Anonymised Information Linkage) Databank at Swansea University.

The summary can be found in English and Welsh

The full report can be found in English and Welsh

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