New 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 the Centre 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.


Key findings from the report


Scale of the problem

Approximately 1 in 4 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 7 years.

60% of repeat proceedings involve at least one child aged less than 4 weeks.

Approximately 70% 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% of repeat care proceedings were issued prior to the final hearing of an earlier set of proceedings. An extra 35% were issued within one year.


Impact of childhood care experience

66% of recurrent mothers had experienced neglect in their childhood. 67% had experienced emotional abuse, 52% physical abuse, and 53% 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.


Turning points

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

  • being offered better professional help and making better use of that help;
  • a positive change in an intimate partner relationship;
  • an ability to reflect and learn from experience;
  • access to post-proceedings counselling or mental health services.



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.”


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