Study Overview

The Vulnerable Birth Mothers and Recurrent Care Proceedings Project (2014-2017) is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The project is being carried out by Lancaster University in partnership with The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust. This project has been developed in collaboration with a network of practice agencies. The project is fully supported by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). Local Authority partners are Coventry City Council; Lancashire County Council; Salford City Council; LB Southwark; and the Tri-borough London.

The overall aim of this study is to generate evidence to inform service development in respect of the timing, content and mode of delivery of services designed to intercept a cycle of recurrent care proceedings. Further quantifying recurrent care proceedings at a national level will also provide policy makers with the necessary data to enable the economic costs of this problem to be estimated. In addition, in focusing on maternal difficulties over time, the project makes a theoretical contribution to long-standing debates about the extent to which multiple adversities are reversible.


There is increasing national and international concern about birth mothers who are caught in a cycle of repeat public law proceedings. Where birth mothers appear and re-appear before the family court on account of child protection concerns, they face the prospect of multiple losses of children to out-of-home care and their circumstances make exceptional demands on children’s services and the courts. In addition, where siblings enter care or are adopted at different points in time, there are particular complexities in terms of sibling placement and contact that are insufficiently understood. In 2015, our research study provided the first estimate of recurrent care proceedings in England, indicating that a sizeable population of women will appear in successive proceedings (see Broadhurst et al. 2015). This work confirmed that repeat clienthood is a sizeable problem for the family court and raised questions about what might be done to help birth mothers, their children and informal networks exit a cycle of repeat legal intervention.

Project summary and research questions

The Vulnerable Birth Mothers and Recurrent Care Proceedings Project is a mixed methods study on birth mothers, their partners and children, within recurrent care proceedings under s.31 of the Children Act in England.

Having completed a successful feasibility study (2013-2014) that reported the first national estimate of prevalence of repeat care proceedings, a detailed population profiling study to examine this cohort of birth mothers, their children and informal networks began in 2014. The first element of the study comprised a set of analyses of the population-level data held by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass). The team produced the first national estimate of recurrent care proceedings using Cafcass records dating back to 2007/08, concerning approximately 65,000 birth mothers. The second element involved semi-structured interviews with 72 birth mothers who record repeat care proceedings, drawn from across seven local authorities. Interviews provided rich insights into women’s experience of the family justice system, child removal and positive turning points. The third element of the study comprised a detailed case file review. The research team manually read court records relating to a representative sample of 354 recurrent mothers who had a total history of 851 proceedings issued by 52 local authorities in England. Court files provided data on maternal childhoods, the antecedents of recurrence, presenting concerns that triggered repeat proceedings, as well as outcomes for children in terms of placement, legal status, and contact.

The study addressed six key research questions:

  1. What is the scale and pattern of recurrent care proceedings nationally and what is the profile of birth mothers involved in this cycle?
  2. Is it possible to differentiate the population of birth mothers caught in a cycle of recurrent care proceedings and what are the implications for intervention? (e.g. from non-recurrent/within the recurrent population)
  3. How can a dynamic understanding of risk and protective factors/processes over time, inform the development of preventative services?
  4. Where mothers exhibit recovery of parenting capacity, how is this achieved?
  5. How might reproductive health services be delivered differently to intercept a cycle of repeat pregnancy and recurrent care proceedings?
  6. What are the implications for children, fathers and kin networks of recurrent care proceedings?