One in every four birth mothers in Wales who have appeared in a first set of care proceedings are at risk of returning to the family court. For the very youngest mothers, the risk rises to one in three.
New research led by Professor Karen Broadhurst and her team at Lancaster University and published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, looked at the 4,345 mothers who faced care proceedings in Wales between 2011 and 2018.
This is the first analysis of the scale and pattern of “repeat removals” in Wales and builds on the research team’s previous work for England. Within the secure environment of the SAIL Databank at Swansea University, the team have been able to produce the first ever population-level estimate using valuable administrative data produced routinely by Cafcass Cymru.
Care proceedings are issued in England and Wales under the Children Act 1989, when children are considered at risk of actual or likely significant harm. The courts can restrict or remove parental responsibility and children may be placed for adoption, with kinship carers or in foster care.
When parents have a child removed from their care the loss is felt acutely, and this is multiplied in cases of repeat removals. This loss also impacts on the child, siblings and wider family networks.
Overall, younger mothers are at the greatest risk of repeated proceedings, 38 per cent of women aged under 20 are likely to have a subsequent child made subject to care proceedings within eight years, compared to 18% of those aged above 30.
The new research reports that intervals between repeat care proceedings are short, with most returns to court occurring within three years of the initial proceedings. In some cases, one set of care proceedings starts before a first has concluded. This makes it very difficult for mothers to convince the courts that their lives have changed.
The research also shows that once a mother is known to the local authority or the court (having had a child removed from her care already), she is much more likely to have a subsequent child removed at birth.
Only 19% of care proceedings issued for a first child were for babies aged less than one month old, contrasting sharply with 61% when the care proceedings were for subsequent children.
The sizeable problem discovered in Wales is very similar in scale and pattern to that previously uncovered in England and highlights the need for services such as the Reflect programme in Wales, which supports women facing repeat care proceedings.
Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory said:
“The devastating impact of the removal of a child is far-reaching, affecting whole families for generations. It is clear that more attention needs to be paid to mothers trapped in a repeat cycle of care proceedings. We need to uncover how far health, education, poverty and other issues in their lives are influencing their eventual arrival in the family justice system, so that early support can be directed towards those most at risk. These types of insights are vital in ensuring plans put in place to support them will be effective and deliver the best possible outcome for children.”
Professor Karen Broadhurst, lead researcher on the project said:
“Access to new data, has enabled the research team to produce the very first estimate of recurrence in Wales. This work builds on our earlier work for England and has revealed marked similarities between the two nations, regarding the scale of the “repeat removals” problem. Once again, we see episodes of care proceedings happening in short succession, leaving mothers will limited time to convince the courts that their lives have changed. The research firmly endorses the Reflect initiative and indicates that durable funding must be part of the solution – to enable the further development and evaluation of preventative solutions.”
Liz Baker, assistant director of Barnardo’s Cymru, which pioneered the Reflect programme in Wales, which supports women facing repeat care proceedings, said:
“The new evidence firmly endorses the Welsh Government’s investment in prevention and indicates that solutions like Reflect are vital to enable women to achieve positive change and break the tragic pattern of repeated losses. We now have benchmarks against which we can evaluate Reflect over time, as the initiative continues to develop across Wales.”
The SAIL Databank and Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Data Partnership are two of our research centres of excellence based within Population Data Science at Swansea University Medical School.