‘Overwhelming and emotionally traumatic’: 1 in 6 new mothers only given a day’s notice of care proceedings, research says

‘The fact this has become commonplace is deeply worrying,’ expert warns

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Friday 04 June 2021 18:43
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<p>Charity director warns separating a mother and her baby is ‘deeply traumatic for all involved’ </p>

Charity director warns separating a mother and her baby is ‘deeply traumatic for all involved’

One in six mothers involved in care proceedings over the last year were given just a day’s notice of a court hearing to decide whether their newborn child would be taken into care, according to research.

The vast majority of such women in England and Wales receive less than one week’s notice, new analysis shows.

Work by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory work also found the number of newborns being taken into care had risen dramatically in recent years. “Newborn” in this case refers to babies under two weeks old.

In England the number of newborns involved in care proceedings annually surged by 20 per cent between 2012-13 and 2019-20 – increasing from 2,425 to 2,914, the Nuffield researchers found. In Wales, the numbers shot up by 40 per cent, from 145 to 203.

Lisa Harker, director of the group, told The Independent it was hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the rise. Ms Harker, whose organisation looks at the experiences of children in the family justice system, said it was partly linked to rising poverty levels across the UK.

She added: “We certainly see a pattern of higher babies being taken into care in areas with higher rates of deprivation.

“We also know many of the mums whose babies are taken into care have serious mental health problems such as anxiety and depression which are treatable mental health conditions. Part of the explanation is the serious unmet need for mother’s mental health support and the lack of available services.”

Ms Harker warned separating a mother and her baby was “deeply traumatic for all involved” and had repercussions that lasted a lifetime.

While urgent action after a baby is born can be needed in cases where there is an “immediate safeguarding need”, there is nevertheless “widespread concern” that the volume of cases is rising, Ms Harker added.

She said: “Not only does it seem that chances are being missed to work with vulnerable mothers much earlier to give them the best chance of staying together as a family, but when that is not possible, the process is often not being managed in a sensitive or humane way.”

The study found the majority of mothers involved were left with a very short amount of formal notice. Researchers discovered more than four out of every five cases in England in the last year and three-quarters of cases in Wales were heard with less than a weeks’ notice.

Ms Harker said: “The fact this has become commonplace is deeply worrying. The legal process is very short notice. We hear directly from mums that the process is overwhelming and emotionally traumatic. It can be difficult to fully participate and understand what is going on.

“As you can imagine it is very likely to be close to the birth, so they may well be in hospital or have recently returned home, and then they have to prepare and get proper legal representation in place.”

There is “clearly a need for a national conversation” about how vulnerable families can be given greater support, Ms Harker added.

The report warned urgent hearings can make it very tricky for parents to have time to “effectively instruct a solicitor”, while the social worker who represents the child does not have a great deal of time to look into the case before making a recommendation to the court. Researchers used eight years of court data covering more than 21,000 babies in England and Wales.

Mothers living in the northeast of England and Yorkshire were substantially more likely to have a care application made for their child just after she gave birth than in London, the study found. Researchers raised fears problems with the current system could infringe the human rights of parents.

Professor Karen Broadhurst, a lead author on the report, said: “Deprivation twinned with a lack of services is a perfect storm when it comes to keeping families together.

“Earlier research has suggested that the greater availability of preventative services in London, such as mother and baby placements and the quality of legal advocacy, had resulted in fewer infant cases being issued at birth, than in the North of England or Wales.

“The greater use of short-notice hearings in England and Wales requires further analysis – I see the statistics as a first step in working collaboratively with professionals and family members alike to understand this trend and to consider whether there are alternatives to issuing care proceedings so soon after birth.”

A spokesperson for the UK judiciary said it welcomed the research, adding that it “provides a helpful statistical perspective on an area of great importance in the family courts and will be the basis of further in-depth analysis, qualitative research and review”.

The spokesperson added: “The fact that hearings take place within a short time of a child’s birth tells us nothing of what occurs at those hearings; it should not be assumed that urgent court hearings and legal orders necessarily mean separation of mother and child.

“Judges are mindful at all times of the best interests of the child and a decision to separate mother and child is taken only after examining the available evidence and considering all other options.”

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