Research Case Study

Can we do more to support birth mothers after a child's taken into care?

We are helping develop and assess services supporting vulnerable mothers facing recurring care proceedings.

  • Tagged under

    Economy, business, politics and society
    Health and wellbeing
    Human Rights

  • Lead Academic

    Professor Pam Cox

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The English family justice system faces a crisis of ‘revolving doors’ and reoccurring care proceedings: up to one in four birth mothers who have a baby taken into care in England are likely to re-appear in another set of care proceedings within seven years. 

New services have been established to provide support to affected mothers and we've conducted one of the first academic evaluations of their impact. We’ve also developed a new app we hope can be used by social workers gathering information about the impact of these innovative approaches.

"These women were losing babies, getting pregnant again and losing the next baby and never getting the chance to look at what was going on in their lives,” explained Tina Wilson, Head of Safeguarding at Suffolk County Council.

The right support at the right moment

The number of children removed at birth has risen rapidly in recent years but few of the birth parents involved are offered any follow-up support, despite often facing multiple challenges including poverty, poor housing, domestic violence, mental health problems, learning difficulties and addiction.

Since 2011, a number of new services have been established to begin to address their unmet needs. Our interdisciplinary research team is conducting one of the first academic-led evaluations of one of these new services: Positive Choices, run by Suffolk County Council.

“This work is really important because the care system in England and Wales has a real issue with recurrent cases - the same families – particularly mothers – coming through again and again and facing similar proceedings. What the services are trying to do and our evaluation is trying to do is break the cycle of these proceedings which cost an awful lots of money and cause an awful lot of heartache,” said Professor Pam Cox, from the Department of Sociology.

Positive Choices offers birth mothers - and, where both are willing, their partners - one-to-one support during the difficult months following the removal of their child. The support offered is individually tailored, with some women opting for quite intensive contact and others less so. It can take the form of face-to-face visits, phone calls, texts and emails as well as through personal letters and cards. Support workers also assist and encourage women to engage with other community-based services including sexual health services.

The Positive Choices model contributed to the early development of the Pause project in Hackney which is now a Department for Education Innovation Fund six-site pilot scheme, and the two groups continue to maintain collaborative contact.

Other projects are also emerging influenced by the impact of Positive Choices, including the Space project in Cambridgeshire.

Providing the tools to develop best practice

Our initial evaluation of Positive Choices and a sister service, Mpower, run by Ormiston Families, was carried out over 18 months in 2014-15. It involved the development of a new methodology to capture the highly personal impacts of the services’ bespoke interventions.

Key findings included:

  • During the evaluation none of the women who engaged with the services experienced an unplanned pregnancy. Based on national trends, without services such as these, researchers estimate that at least 15% of those women would be likely to do so at some point in the future, leaving them subject to recurrent care proceedings.
  • An in-depth case study of five of the clients indicated three showed significant improvement in their emotional health and well-being after nine to twelve months of working with the services.
  • The evaluation team also estimate that the two services combined have saved between at least £500,000 and £900,000 in avoided care proceedings in their first 18 months.

“Positive Choices has worked with the University of Essex to make a real difference. The University gave us a sounding board – we looked at statistics, how to gather them and how to measure impact," added Tina Wilson.

During 2016, we worked with Positive Choices to refine our methodology for social workers and to co-produce a new tool for data collection and evaluation.

“The next stage for our research is to scale up our evaluation which began in Suffolk and roll it out to other services being developed in the eastern region,” said Dr Danny Taggart, from the School of Health and Social Care.

Research team

  • Professor Pamela Cox, Principal Investigator, Department of Sociology
  • Dr Caroline Barratt, School of Health and Social Care
  • Dr Frances Blumenfeld, School of Health and Social Care, Clinical Psychology
  • Dr Susan McPherson, School of Health and Social Care
  • Dr Daniel Taggart, School of Health and Social Care, Clinical Psychology
  • Dr Jackie Turton, Department of Sociology

This project received funding from a £680,000 Impact Acceleration Account that Essex was awarded by the ESRC in July 2014. Impact Acceleration Accounts provide funding to institutions with an impressive track record in social science research and ours is enabling us to conduct a wide range of research over four years.