Thousands of mothers have successive children removed by family courts

Research led by experts at The University of Manchester shows thousands of mothers have had successive children removed by family courts in England over the past seven years.

During 2007-2013, 7,143 birth mothers appeared in 15,645 recurrent care applications concerning 22,790 infants and children. 

The study also found approximately 1 in every 3 care applications concerns a mother who can be described as a repeat client of the family court. 

The scale of the pattern of recurrent care proceedings has been captured in the initial findings of a study led by Dr Karen Broadhurst from the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Local authorities issue care proceedings where it is so concerned about children, that compulsory legal intervention is deemed necessary to secure the safety and well being of children. But the continued high volume of care applications made annually by local authorities has led to members of the judiciary raising concerns about birth mothers who they see appearing and re-appearing before them, only to lose successive infants to public care or adoption.

Dr Broadhurst said: “Mothers appearing in recurrent cases are very young. 19% are aged 14-19 years of age at first care application and in 50% of all cases, mothers are aged 24 or less. Work is ongoing to establish what can be learned about fathers in recurrent cases.”

The research also found recurrent care proceedings follow in short succession, most commonly prompted by the birth of another infant. 

Dr Broadhurst added: “From this we can infer that birth mothers are pregnant again, either during the first set of proceedings, or shortly after. In addition, in 42% of cases, the local authority will issue a care application within the first month of an infant’s birth. This pattern raises questions about prevention because mothers will have very little time to effect change between episodes of care proceedings. This observation is confirmed by the profile of final legal outcomes, which suggests that in only a small percentage of cases, infants or children remained at home or were returned to their birth mothers.” 

The study authors recommend agencies must help mothers to extend the window between their pregnancies as part and parcel of a multi-faceted approach to rehabilitation. In addition, attention needs to be paid to the court process, to ensure that the family court maximises engagement with teenage or very young, vulnerable women and their families, they argue.

The Child and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCASS), and the President of the Family Division granted ethical clearance and access to data. 

Notes for editors

The Research Team is made up of Dr Karen Broadhurst (Principal Investigator, University of Manchester); Professor Judith Harwin (Co-investigator, Brunel University); Dr Mike Shaw (Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Co-investigator, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust); Dr Bachar Alrouh (Lead Researcher, Brunel University) and Dr Mark Pilling (Statistical Adviser, University of Manchester).The research was published in Family Law today.

For further information, please contact Alison Barbuti, Media Relations Officer, Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, 0161 275 8383 alison.barbuti@manchester.ac.uk