When it comes to children being taken into care, we can't keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Research from the University of Lancaster out today shows the number of babies being taken into care at birth has risen, and more than half of these babies have siblings already in care.
The report revealed that 1 in 4 women who have lost a child through a court order will return to the family courts. And this rises to 1 in 3 for those who are teenagers at the birth of their first child.
We know that the backgrounds of these women are strikingly similar. Many have experienced sexual and physical violence as children, with the abuse continuing into adulthood. They are deeply traumatised. Many have mental health problems, are in abusive relationships and some face problems with drugs or alcohol. Yet there are very few specialist women's services available to them to help untangle the complex links between abuse, trauma, and the other issues they face.
At almost every turn, they have been failed by society. These are women who were not protected from abuse as children. As adults they are often seen as 'difficult' or 'trouble makers'. They are largely ignored by society. Until that is they become pregnant when social services become involved. Social workers undoubtedly have a hugely difficult job and shrinking resources mean they are under increased pressure. But the way the current system works is that the focus is entirely on the child and often no specialist support is offered to the mother: instead a series of conditions are applied which she must meet. If her child is taken into care, social services withdraw altogether, leaving her facing the loss of a child with no support.
Taking a child into care is one of the most coercive things our state can do. The loss of a child under such circumstances is deeply traumatic, even when it may be the right thing to do. The vast majority of people would struggle to cope after losing a child in this way. But these already traumatised women, living in incredibly difficult circumstances, are expected to carry on alone with this loss. Even though we know many are likely to become pregnant again, no help is offered to prevent the same situation repeating over and over.
If instead we identified women and girls at risk and provided them with specialist, trauma aware support early on, we could prevent this cycle. By helping at-risk mums-to-be deal with their trauma, get mental health support, and kick their addictions, we could reduce the number of newborns who need to be taken into care. At the very least, by offering women this kind of support after having a child taken into care we could reduce the likelihood of the situation repeating with her next child.
To do this, we need proper funding for holistic, specialist services who can make that difference for women. Social services need to better recognise and respond to the needs of the mother as well as the child. Women having multiple children taken into care aren't 'difficult' or 'reckless': they are deeply traumatised women facing very difficult lives.
The safety and welfare of children must be paramount: there can be no compromise on that principle. But in many cases, a child's welfare is best served by staying with its mother if she can be supported to parent well. Today Nicky Morgan announces a new approach to children's services. But if we really want to improve children's welfare, we need to make sure there is support available for mothers too.