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Family Law

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Court of Protection Practice and Procedure Conference 2016

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13 OCT 2014

Recurrent care proceedings: Part 3: Birth mothers – against the odds: turning points for women who have lost children to public care (£)

Recurrent care proceedings: Part 3: Birth mothers – against the odds: turning points for women who have lost children to public care (£)
KAREN BROADHURST, Senior Lecturer in Socio-Legal Studies, University of Manchester
CLAIRE MASON, Research Associate,
University of Manchester

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In June 2014, members of our research group published findings concerning the scale and pattern of recurrent care proceedings in England (Broadhurst et al, August [2014] Fam Law 1073). Having established that a sizeable population of birth mothers lose multiple infants and children to the care system in successive public law proceedings, this then begs the question of whether mothers caught in this cycle, can be helped to change? In this short article we draw on rich autobiographical material drawn from in-depth interviews with 26 birth mothers, who had all experienced repeat removal of infants and children on account of child protection concerns. Our particular interest is in the accounts from 11/26 women who succeeded in turning around their lives, despite a history of multiple and enduring adversities. At the time of interview, all 11 mothers had a child full-time resident in their care, but their history was of repeat losses of children to public care and adoption. Although the observations we document in this paper are drawn from a pilot study conducted in one local authority area, small-scale exploratory studies are invaluable in opening up avenues for further systematic enquiry.

Unexpected turning points challenge the notion that child and adolescent adversities have immutable long-term effects. All 26 women in our sample had experienced multiple adversities that extended deep into their own childhoods, yet for a proportion of the group, partly by chance and partly by design – changes in immediate personal circumstances afforded the opportunity for change. As we describe in this article, intrinsic maternal characteristics also played a key part in determining whether change was or was not possible. It was noteworthy that common among the 11 women who recovered their parenting capacity was a marked resilience in the face of hugely difficult life experiences, coupled with sustained motivation to engage with professional help. Over time and given improved personal relationships, mothers were able to develop more adaptive responses to life stresses. From mothers’ self report accounts of change, their commitment and sense of enduring connection to their children in care [or adopted] and desire to parent a subsequent infant were major motivational drivers.

Initial observations from this pilot study resonate with a broader literature, which suggests that resilient functioning can be nurtured later in the life cycle, rather than simply in childhood/adolescence. If resilience is a normal, human adaptational mechanism, then great clarity is needed about how we foster resilience in women who demonstrate motivation for change, despite a history of removal of infants and children. Removing barriers that stand in the way of access to psychological therapies is critical in this respect. It is important to underscore that assessments undertaken during legal proceedings capture a snapshot of women’s functioning, but this can change over the life course where women are able to access skilled help.

The full version of this will appear in the November 2014 issue of Family Law.

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