07:36, October 17 108 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-17 07:36:03
How to stop record numbers of children going into care? Help their mothers

Some 90 children a day were taken into care last year – and the total number of children in care is now at a new high: 72,670 according to the latest statistics, and care numbers are rising at the fastest rate for five years. Financially, this is unsustainable. But in human terms too, it can’t carry on – because where does it leave the thousands of traumatised and grieving mothers, and their broken families who must stumble on with no support and no hope?

Leah was 23 when we met in her solicitor’s office. A care leaver herself, this young mother had just lost her second son to adoption, aged nine months. He was meeting all his developmental milestones and she loved him deeply. Her first baby had been removed earlier at just four months old.

Leah was so traumatised she could barely speak. But I already knew the background: in two scathing judgments the senior family judge who removed her second son set out just how thoroughly this young woman had been failed by the state throughout her own childhood and beyond. Sexually abused by her stepfather and stepbrothers, when she was finally taken into care as a teenager, she had had 11 changes of foster home in 18 months. She received no support from children’s services to cope with the transition to adult life. Leah was effectively abandoned. Unsurprisingly, when she had her first baby, she couldn’t look after him well enough: he was forcibly removed and soon adopted.

Psychologists are clear that specialist therapy can offer mothers like Leah a genuine chance to care for their children well enough to keep them. A realistic cost would be £5,200: one session a week for a year at an average of £100 each time. But women often don’t get the right help before they become pregnant, and they don’t get it after a baby is removed either. With the baby “rescued”, the child protection concerns melt away. Exactly at this point, young women have told me over and over, social services “just drop you”.

I met Leah two and a half years ago. Despite repeated calls for specialist therapeutic support from the judiciary, family rights groups and women themselves, it’s clear that nothing much has changed. There is a vast human cost to this failure to support to vulnerable mothers. According to recent research from Lancaster University’s longitudinal study into recurrent care proceedings, the number of women going to court to fight for their children has doubled in seven years, from nearly 6,000 in 2008-09 to nearly 12,000 in 2015-16. Yet there is still no statutory entitlement to trauma support or specialist, ongoing therapy for women like Leah. Despite the authorities knowing full well for the last three years that this second young mother had difficulties – and therefore plenty of time to offer her the kind of specialist therapy that would have given her a fighting chance to keep at least her second baby – nobody made that call. And so another young woman has had trauma heaped upon trauma. Any parent understands that she will never recover.

Lack of access to mental health services creates a deep sense of injustice for mothers in this situation, notes Lancaster university’s social work professor Karen Broadhurst

At around 5,000 adoptions a year, more children are adopted in this country than in any other EU nation. So why are we still failing to step in early, consistently and with commitment to help young women in urgent need of support? It’s certainly isn’t that we can’t afford it.Care cases cost a small fortune to take through court, and foster placements are vastly expensive: the annual cost of care is put at between £35,000 and £58,000. Though ostensibly cheaper because of being a “one-off”, adoption costs are rising as it is increasingly understood that adoptive families need long-term professional support to cope. In short, untold millions are spent on “rescuing” children, but we won’t fork out considerably less to help birth mothers whose lives have been shattered.

Though the groundbreaking Pause programme offers intensive support to women who have had children removed, it only operates in a few areas of the country, and is dependent on individual local authorities choosing to fund it. The fact that Pause must be specially commissioned and that the few other similar services must scrabble desperately for funds, perfectly highlights the fact that supporting such women is seen as optional, not fundamental mental health care for a trauma survivor. What seems to be forgotten is that Leah and other women like her usually are that vulnerable child everyone insists they are so concerned about – but unfortunately now the wrong side of 18, and therefore unrescue-worthy.

The European Court of Human Rights affirmed last year that the state has positive obligations to keep families together. But our system illogically splits parents’ welfare from children’s welfare under the lazy mantra “the child’s welfare is paramount”. You cannot have one without the other.

The result of this blinkered focus is that their mothers are brutally written off. Some women kill themselves when their children are removed. For those who physically survive, the retraumatising effects of losing child after child destroys a person’s psyche.

Yet we turn away from the human ruins our system has created, and work hard to ignore the damage that travels down the generations. We can’t afford to do otherwise, or we’d see that the destruction of these women is due to our failure to address the fallout of the poverty, social alienation and violence that degraded their own lives.