My name is Annie, and I’m one half of the Project Coordination team at The Transparency Project. Some of you may also know me as the founder of “Surviving Safeguarding; a parent’s guide to the child protection process” as well as being the Parent and Relatives Representative on the Family Justice Council. I’m writing this as a commentary on recent news stories around the repeated removals of babies and children from the same mothers. These are my personal views, and I’d invite your own comments on this contentious and emotive subject.
Last month, two articles emerged. One, from Derbyshire Live, led with the headline Mums in Derbyshire whose children keep getting taken into care making ‘active choice’ . The other, from Nottinghamshire Live said “Drastic new plan to prevent mums with kids in care having more children”.
The articles describe the introduction of the Pause programme, an intensive support service for women who have experienced repeat removals of children. The programme does not work with the women in order that their children are returned to them (in fact, they are quite explicit that they will unequivocally not do that) but instead offers them an opportunity to “pause” and do some work on themselves. As long as they take Long Acting Reversible Contraception (LARC). And don’t get pregnant. Pause is not the only programme in existence which seeks to “break the cycle” of repeat removals, but it’s the only one which has been heavily funded by the English government and the only one which demands the use of LARC.
Both articles above are very keen to describe Pause as “voluntary”, and claim that “it would avoid taking 25 children into care” (I’m not sure if their crystal ball takes requests but I’d love the lottery numbers for this Saturday). No less than six local cabinet members are quoted and almost all address the requirement of fertility control as a precursor to receiving services as a positive thing and “voluntary” (there’s that word again!).
I’ve been one of ‘those’ mums. I fell pregnant during public law proceedings in respect of my elder children and my baby was taken into foster care at birth. I want to make it clear that proceedings (for my older children) were initiated and my new-born was taken, in part, because of my own mistakes and life choices resulting in abusive relationships and poor mental health. The local authority had the evidence to take to court to have my children removed because of the way I had behaved. At that point, my local authority wrote me off, and didn’t offer me any support to change my life during the first or the second set of proceedings. I know, after almost five years of working with social workers nationally, that this is not the case everywhere; that women are helped and supported.
Care proceedings are horrifying. When you are going through them, you feel tainted, dirty, shameful and alone. You can’t walk down the street in your local area without people looking at you. You can feel their glares and you know what they’re saying:
“She’s had her kids taken off her you know”
You’re the subject of judgement and condemnation. It is not enough that you have lost care of your children, you must also become school-yard gossip, everyone pitching in with their guesses as to what you’ve done. Apparently, according to the local buzz, I had jumped out of a window holding my children (I had five, so that alone might have been a bit tricky), and that’s why they were “all took off her”. (FYI, I didn’t and they weren’t; I asked for help).
My son has been home for five years. We haven’t had a social worker for over four years. Yet still, people in my local community, mums and dads in the school yard, teachers, doctors and those I only know by association with another, still they gossip. I’ve learned to live with it. It’s not nice and there was a period where I felt like I should wear a sandwich board explaining the situation (with the footnote “I’m not a bad mum, honestly”) and ring a bell whilst walking the streets of North Tyneside (I didn’t, don’t worry).
When I read headlines like those quoted above, I get annoyed because it smacks of “women-blaming” to me. I get even more annoyed when I read articles about research on recurrent proceedings, like this: “What should be done about irresponsible mothers?”.
This article describes mums like me as requiring “preventative measures that include the control of the fertility of some women”, that we are “creating a moral dilemma”, we are a “problem” and “repeat clients of the family court” (which frankly makes me feel like a lady of the night).
“The moral debate hinges on the question of what resources the state should provide for services to mothers who repeatedly get pregnant but are too immature or irresponsible for motherhood – because their compulsive focus on their own needs makes them incapable of focusing on the child’s needs.”Hilary Searing
Was I too immature, or irresponsible for motherhood? Having undertaken intensive therapy to address my own issues which impacted on my ability to parent, No, I don’t think I was – and I’d argue that many of “us” aren’t either. I experienced an abusive and controlling childhood which led me to seek out abusive and controlling relationships because they were all I had known, and they felt safe. I experienced poor mental health because of my abusive childhood, my time in the care system and the choices that I had made in respect of relationships myself. I did need help, but not the sort that would replace one form of control for another.
How do you know?
On 1st May, BBC Radio Five Live Breakfast broadcast this piece about the Pause programme (from 2:25ish). Like the articles above, it is claimed that DfE evaluation of Pause conducted in 2017 suggested it had been successful in preventing 36 pregnancies from 125 women, therefore saving those 36 children from being taken into care. No one, least of all I, can argue that preventing children from being taken into care is a bad thing. But I’m still struggling with the concept of these non-conceived children being “saved”. How do we know for sure if these 125 women had gone on to have 36 children, they would have all resulted in care proceedings? The bottom line is, with the best algorithms and will in the world; we simply don’t.
“Sharon” (not her real name) spoke briefly during the show about finding out she was pregnant “at seven or eight months” and knowing the local authority would take her child. She had older children in care, a history of heroin addiction and was in a violent relationship. She talked about “walking out of the hospital, then never seeing a midwife, or a health visitor”.
“As soon as you have the kid, that’s it”
HHJ Carol Atkinson then spoke about the challenge for a judge as to whether or not a parent could be encouraged to change their lives, and being creative and proactive enough to find alternatives to keep families together. HHJ Atkinson mirrored what “Sharon” had spoken of; seeing a mother “walking out of the courtroom…completely isolated and alone”. She described Pause as “a critical friend and someone who will support [the mothers”.
In my experience, a critical friend and someone who supports you does not control your fertility and require you to take LARC in order to receive that support.
It takes two, baby
“These women are required to take LARC…why not the fathers?”Nicky Campbell, BBC Five Live
There’s nothing on the Pause website about a programme for fathers. I would welcome being corrected, but I’m yet to see an article about “irresponsible fathers who keep having babies who are taken into care”. I’m no biology expert, but I feel confident in my assertion that women don’t get pregnant on their own. So, what about the fathers?
During that whole awful period of care proceedings, my new-born’s removal and subsequent proceedings, and then private law proceedings in respect of my daughter – where every part of my life was raked over – no one really asked much about the fathers. My ex-partner undertook a parenting assessment during the first set of care proceedings in 2012/13 with a social worker. I did too. We compared notes afterwards. I was astonished. The social worker asked a few questions of my ex-partner in terms of his practical ability to care for our child, and lots of questions about what he thought about me. A different social worker never asked me once about my practical ability to look after my children (assessing my parenting as “higher than average”) and never once asked me for my opinion on my ex-partner’s lifestyle. It felt like I was the target.
This was repeated during the subsequent private law proceedings me and my ex-partner found ourselves in following his own actions in abandoning our child into my care and withdrawing himself from her life in September 2016 until June 2017. Again, I was made to feel like the target. His actions and the impact that had on our child were minimised, and my own actions of 2011/12 were brought back up. My ex-partner began a targeted campaign of harassment against me and I requested assistance from the police, who were very kind and supportive. He began to threaten suicide as a way of trying to manipulate me and the situation. His mental health was in obvious decline; he was seeing the Crisis Team daily. Yet 11 days before he took his own life, the lead professional on the case deemed me to be at fault, said he was not a risk, that his mental health was fine. She supported his unsupervised contact with our daughter; even the judge was somewhat incredulous.
I realise that my situation is not necessarily reflective of the majority of cases that come before the court. I turned my life around on my own. I didn’t need an agency controlling my fertility. I worked out where I was going wrong and sought to do everything in my power to put it right. And what I have learned in almost five years of being “Annie – Surviving Safeguarding”, is that I’m far from unique.
The key point in how to change things for mothers who are “repeat clients of the family court” and their children has already been made. Both “Sharon” and HHJ Atkinson said it. If a mum is walking out of court alone and isolated, having lost her children, how can you blame her for wanting to fill that gap, with drugs, a relationship, another child? That’s when the work needs to take place – or preferably before. But not by replacing one form of control – whether that be domestic abuse or substance misuse – for another in the form of LARC. What message does this give to women? That they are not to be trusted with their own fertility? That it must be managed by an agency? That they are not permitted transformative help – because (whilst I may not have reflected this particularly well thus far) I do really believe Pause does excellent work with women – without giving up control of their reproductive system? I know critics will immediately say LARC is temporary and reversible, but that’s not quite the case if, like me, you’re kicking 40 and it can take up to a year for your fertility to return after LARC.
One mother who has been through the Pause programme said this on a social media group (I have requested and received her permission to republish it here):
“I’m coming to the end of my 18 month pause journey, after having my 4 kids removed and I can honestly say that the help and support received has helped me. I may not have my children back but my god I’m in a better position and mindset than ever before. One of the criteria is to be on some form of contraception. “
However, despite her positive experiences, and clear dedication and hard work, this mum still isn’t sure whether the Pause programme will mean that any subsequent children she may have will remain in her care. She feels that social workers have not changed their opinion of her and that they and Pause need to work more closely together.
So, what is the answer? How do we, as a society, help mums like me who have made mistakes and who need support and help? How do we do this without blame and shame? And how do we engage better with fathers?
Over to you.