By Dr David Saltiel, Lecturer in Social Work
It’s not often that social work research hits the headlines but the Nuffield-funded work of Professor Karen Broadhurst and her colleagues at Manchester and Brunel Universities on women who have experienced more than one removal of a child in care proceedings has caused quite a stir with the BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35088794) and the Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/18/more-babies-taken-into-care-todays-cultural-climate).
The figures Professor Broadhurst has found are truly shocking. Between 2007-2013 about 23,000 babies and children were removed from 7,000 women. In a recent paper in the British Journal of Social Work (http://bjsw.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/12/14/bjsw.bcv130.full) Professor Broadhurst and her colleagues estimate that 24% of women who appear in care proceedings will return in care hearings on subsequent children. For women aged 16-19 the return rate is almost 1 in 3. In some parts of the country between 67%-79% of looked after children in the care system have a maternal sibling in care too. The numbers of babies subject to care proceedings where a sibling has already been removed rose from 802 in 2008 to 2,018 in 2013. Yet, as Broadhurst says, these “maternal outcasts” have until now been a hidden population despite anecdotal evidence from judges who talk of removing, in the most extreme cases, the 14th or 15th baby from the same mother.
Deborah Orr in the Guardian argues that these figures reflect a rise in care proceedings as the climate of social work practice has changed since the “Baby P” case. More widely, she suggests, it reflects a cultural climate of earlier intervention to remove children for adoption and the disappearance of many support services as cuts bite deep into local authority funds. Orr asks what kind of society can countenance such awful waste and misery in the lives of children and adults?
One response has been the opening of several Pause projects, based on the original project in London (http://www.pause.org.uk/), funded by a grant from the DfE. Women are offered a mix of services which include intensive therapy, grief counselling and practical help with housing, budgeting, literacy and healthy lifestyles. They agree to use long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) to give them the “space” to change their lives.
Those of us involved in social care need to ask ourselves some hard questions. What prevents us from working with these women to help them turn their lives around? What changes need to be made in the ways we work and the systems we work within? How do we square protecting children with improving the physical and mental health of these vulnerable women? The answers are unlikely to be easy. Studies of Serious Case Reviews written following child deaths such as Baby P have identified a “toxic trio” of factors in these families of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and parental mental ill-health. In many of the families two or more of these factors co-existed making interventions particularly complex. What works for one factor may not work for another.
Leeds City Council is committed to a policy of “restorative practices” which means working with families and communities to support them in developing their own resources to protect the health and wellbeing of children and adults. The use of Family Group Conferences and Family Drug and Alcohol Courts are central to this way of working: problem-solving approaches that try to keep families together if possible. Staff and postgraduate students in the Social Work and Counselling & Psychotherapy teams at Leeds University’s School of Healthcare are designing an evaluation of a project which works with a group of women subject to repeat removals in Leeds. The project is run by two social care agencies with very different ways of working and this combination may be what is needed in working with women with many difficult issues and unhealthy, even dangerous, lives.