Court-order child removal: yet another developmental challenge for young women whose childhoods are characterised by adversity – can a problem solving approach help?

We have published an article in the British Journal of Social Work on the developmental challenge for young women whose childhoods are characterised by adversity and how a problem-solving approach may be able to help. Link to the article here.

This paper provided an updated picture of the scale of birth mothers’ return to court in England. Our findings confirmed that returning to court is far from infrequent; at least 1 in 4 women will return to court and lose another child, having previously appeared as respondents in care proceedings. For women aged 16-19, the risk increases to 1 in 3.
In this blog, we reflect on the age profile of women in the study population. As we reported in the article cited above, our work has begun to uncover an important and concerning the relationship between an early transition to motherhood and risk of appearing once and on multiple occasions before the family court. In fact, compared to the national demographic, teenage mothers are hugely over represented in our sample. Moreover, a percentage of the young ‘women’ we have captured, are in fact children themselves. So how does this matter? The rest of the article is focused on raising questions about this issue, but in addition, debating solutions that might at least reduce the inevitable psychosocial damage that results from compulsory removal of children. This is not an argument against child removal – sadly in a percentage of cases young women cannot safely parent – but it is an argument in favour of taking very seriously the iatrogenic consequences of family court proceedings.
The distressing impact of court proceedings has been poignantly illustrated in previous studies (Hunt, 2010; Hunt and Freeman, 1998 and Lindley 1994). Our own qualitative findings from in depth interviews with 72 birth mothers in 7 local authority areas builds on this excellent early work and adds new insights when we bring a developmental lens to this issue. The first-person accounts we have been able to generate, provide important insights into the impact that court proceedings have on women, with many describing the fear and isolation they experienced because child removal is an atypical experience that sets women apart from their peers. The women spoke of the lack of support at this crucial time, once proceedings had concluded – services withdrew leaving the birth mother to cope alone.
Whilst the impact of court-ordered child removal is surely devastating at any age, it is important to consider the particular issues that child removal poses for young women who are legal minors or teenagers when they appear in the family court.
Adolescence is a time when self-confidence, capacity to stand up for one self, and ability to express painful thoughts and feelings in a safe way are still forming. Whilst adolescents seek separation and autonomy, they are still dependent on reliable ‘attachment figures’ for practical and emotional support with the daily challenge of everyday living and problem solving. However, the young women in our study reported attachment figures as sorely lacking. Typically women had endured multiple adversities in childhood – poverty, homelessness, community level violence and exposure to neglect or maltreatment – such that they enter they adolescence insufficiently protected by their caregivers. If what follows, is court ordered removal of children, this is yet another developmental challenge for young women already carrying the legacy of difficult childhoods. Arguably, the trauma of child removal, compounds disadvantage and in the absence of therapeutic help, is likely to exacerbate maladaptive behaviour and undermine psychosocial growth. These young women are simply overwhelmed; they lack the internal or external resources to rework and give meaning to their trauma so they become defined by it. The result is often to repeat the unresolved trauma in a very concrete effort to get rid of it, master it or at least communicate with others.
Gemma a young woman of 18 who had had two children removed and placed for adoption described her experiences in Court:

“It’s your kids. It’s your life. They talk around in the court like they’re little rag dolls, they ain’t nothing….. I don’t think they see that as a mum. Court is overwhelming for mums”

Gemma’s vivid description of feeling that her children whom she loved felt like ‘rag dolls’ speaks volumes about the dehumanising experience of the Family Court. Whilst infants and children must be protected from harm by the State, there are better ways in which the current process could be changed in order to make the Court process itself a more humane and just experience. Many women told us that they felt the process had been unfair, that they have not had a chance to really get their voices heard. The experience of having their failings and difficulties scrutinised by the Court was agonising for many. Women described leaving the Court feeling further damaged not only by the loss of their child – but by the process itself.
The compulsory removal of a child is enough of a psychological burden for anyone to endure – for young women it must have a deleterious effect on life chances. Surely it is the mark of a humane society to act to protect children, in ways that do not require abandonment of parents’ welfare needs? We believe that it is time for reform – and alternative models of court practice are available which maximise the therapeutic potential of the court. Here we would refer readers to the extensive literature on therapeutic jurisprudence and the work of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health:
Let us return to Gemma’s story:

“Being a mum was the first thing I felt proud of in my whole life, and then they took it away. I think they should give more support for after you’ve come out of court as well. I think they should do something. I don’t know. Because I was just left, and that’s when depression sets in….. And then when they take them away it just shatters everything. I felt like the only thing I was good at after the rape and being beaten up and everything was being a mum. And then when that’s taken away from you, you just absolutely don’t know where to turn. Then when you’re going through it again it is life shattering. You just want to kill yourself, to be honest with you. That’s how you feel. When I was already pregnant with B I come out of the court proceedings and I just wanted to walk in front of a taxi.”

Gemma’s account starkly illustrates the pain of her loss “life shattering” a sentiment echoed across the women’s accounts.
Our research suggests that many parents leave the Court feeling like Gemma and that at this point there is nowhere to turn. If we are to help to repair the damage, help this group of young women overcome their adversities change is needed. Change in the way proceedings are conducted and policy change to mandate help and support for women to overcome their difficulties after they leave court. Without such changes the human and economic costs are huge and the family court will continue to see some of the youngest women time and time again.
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court or FDAC is a therapeutic problem solving family court, and a completely different approach to family justice. Parents work with a specially trained judge and therapeutic team. They are given the best possible chance to solve their problems in a timescale compatible with their children’s needs. Where that is not possible parents are encouraged to keep working on their problems so that they can make the most of any contact with children, which might be available and be in a better place to make safe reproductive choices in the future. The Family Drug and Alcohol Court is one approach now being extensively tested in England We can also learn from the problem solving Youth Courts in the US, also trialling ways of engaging with young parents. It is clear that the Family Court in England cannot simply do more of the same – the human and economic costs are too great.

Freeman, P. and Hunt, J. (1998) Parental Perspectives on Care Proceedings. London, TSO.
Hunt, J. (2010) Parental Perspectives on the Family Justice System in England and Wales: a review of research. London: Nuffield Foundation
Lindley B. 1994. On the Receiving End: Families’ Experiences of the Court Process in Care and Supervision Proceedings under the Children Act 1989. London, Family Rights Group .