'My children were taken into care, but that doesn't make me a terrible mother'
Deborah has a secret. One that she hasn’t shared with any of her friends at the school gates.
‘My children were in care for around eight months,’ she explains, telling her story under a pseudonym for fear of judgement. ‘When it happened, I became that really busy friend who couldn’t see anyone. I made sure that nobody knew.’
To this day, Deborah lives with the stigma of having her children removed after suffering a mental health breakdown.
Over the last two decades the number of children being taken into care has risen steadily. Latest figures from a 2019 report by healthcare analysts Laing Buisson, disclose that the amount had hit nearly 10,000 – a number that’s expected to have risen since lockdown started.
It’s thought that one reason behind the increase in figures is to avoid another tragic situation following the death of 17-month-old Baby P in 2008, who died after social workers failed him by leaving him with his mother.
However, there are many complex reasons behind family separations.
‘Domestic abuse or violence is the most common factor we see across all the experiences of the women we work with, especially those who’ve had their children taken away,’ explains Laura Seebohm, Executive Director for national charity, Changing Lives, which helps vulnerable people rebuild their lives. ‘But all too often, we look to the women subjected to it to find the solution, rather than focusing on the perpetrator and this often leads to victim blaming.’
She adds that, when struggling alone or under increased pressure, the ways women seek to keep themselves safe can appear to be maladaptive or seemingly irrational and often lead to criticisms, such as if a mother lets an abuser back into the house with her children.
‘Logic and reasoning are pushed to one side and we go into survival mode,’ explains Laura. ‘Instinct and past experience tells you that if you become compliant, you’re safer.’
Turning to alcohol or other substances can be another behaviour seen in people struggling with trauma, such as abuse, or indeed other mental health problems. According to a report from the Mental Health Foundation, half of those with drug dependence were also receiving mental health treatment or psychological therapies.
But while self-medicating with dangerous substances can seem to the outsider as completely unjustifiable, all too often they are used as a way to deal with the pain and distress that a person is going through.
Deborah is now in her thirties and working full time, but just a few years ago, she turned to alcohol to get through a particularly difficult point in her life.
‘When I had my children taken into care I wasn’t coping and I needed help’, she remembers. ‘I’d had a major mental breakdown. But the assumption was that I’d ‘let’ myself go – as if I’d had a choice in the matter.’
The truth was Deborah had experienced anxiety, depression, addiction and domestic abuse to the point of becoming suicidal.
After the break up of an abusive long-term relationship, she went out to a restaurant one night with her children, got drunk, went home, tucked them up in bed, then woke up the next morning and immediately drank again.
‘When my mum arrived at my home that morning she was horrified with what she saw and immediately took the kids away,’ admits Deborah.
With her children gone, Deborah admits she went ‘completely off the rails’ and ‘lost touch with reality’ as she drank solidly for three days. Something she’d never experienced before.
While she was aware she wasn’t in a state to look after her family at that point, Deborah did have the support of her mother and her sister. But then her ex-partner insisted he should have the children and took them without agreement from Deborah’s mum’s home, where they had been staying.
After contacting social services about concerns for her children, Deborah was told that they’d be supporting their father’s parental rights, rather than hers.
‘I was astounded.’ She says. ‘I’d admitted I wasn’t well enough, but that my mum could move in with me. I’d reminded them about the history of abuse that myself and my children experienced at the hands of their dad. But it made no difference.
‘In the end, they had to remove them from his care, because, of course, he hit them again.’
Although Deborah’s children were permitted to move into her sister’s home, she was allowed just five and a half hours of supervised contact a week.
Having no experience as to how the system worked, as they’d never had any prior issues of neglect, Deborah recalls how overwhelming and quick everything felt.
‘The stress and anxiety my family was under was immense,’ she explains. ‘We were told that if I stayed just 30 minutes longer than my allocated time with the children, they’d be removed from my sister and put into local authority care. We were all relentlessly treading on eggshells.’
Deborah feels that the best thing for her children would have been if social services could have worked more in partnership with her as their mum, to consider a plan for the family to work towards.
‘I repeatedly raised this as a request, but they absolutely refused,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t get any unsupervised contact until the day they returned home full time. Which doesn’t make any sense to me – how could they assess my ability to cope?
‘They didn’t really provide me with a road map or a goal. It was more about hoops I needed to jump through – providing hair strand tests, having psychological assessments,’ she continues. ‘One thing that they did agree to, which I suggested, was a parental course that I attended. But the write up and notes from that never materialised.’
Layla Frank is a social worker and says that she and many of her colleagues struggle with decisions made over separately families.
‘This is such a huge issue and layered with complexities because often, in order to keep victims of any sort of abuse safe, you have to revictimise them by pulling them out of their homes and into refuges, far from their families, friends, children’s schools and so on,’ she explains. ‘Many women choose not to do that, and unfortunately local authorities tend to lack nuance in their thinking. It’s either do as we say or lose the children.’
Keen to point out that this is not down to individual social workers but due to risk averse local authorities and family courts, Layla – who has over a decade’s worth of experience working on front line child safeguarding teams – says that what needs to be done is far heavier penalisation of perpetrators. ‘But we have a long way to go before that happens,’ she admits.
‘It’s also a political issue as prior to austerity we had lots of resources that enabled us to take a more practical approach.
‘I know of social workers who are responsible for over 50 caseloads, which was alomost unheard of 15 years ago. Back then it meant we were able to spend time with our service users building relationships.
‘The relationship that you create with a victim of domestic abuse is crucial,’ Layla adds. ‘It can make the difference between a mother trusting you enough to take your advice or not. Nobody can build relationships with 50 families in the time we have to complete assessments.
‘Additionally, we used to have brilliant professionals attached to our teams, such as people who specialised in teenage pregnancy, the traveller community, drug addiction.
‘ All of those teams disappeared over the last decade leaving social workers responsible for all aspects. Since the Tories came in we can barely afford printer ink, let alone robust service provision.
‘As a social worker who has been told countless times by management that I have to go for removal, in cases where I know that practical intervention would be preferable, I can tell you that it is painful and goes against our values – but if we wish to keep our jobs we have no choice.’
Claire* is a second-year university student who has been working with women’s theatre company, Open Clasp, to raise awareness of domestic abuse and the mothers who’ve had their children removed.
At just nine, she herself was taken into care due to domestic violence, drug use and poverty at her home. Her mum was eventually imprisoned for shoplifting, after stealing food for her children.
‘I was separated from my siblings and placed in a care home,’ recalls Claire. ‘I was put into a car with two strangers, told nothing and felt the saddest and most frightened I ever had.’
It was while she was in care that Claire was sexual assaulted by some of the older teenagers who were also living there. ‘I felt so angry because I experienced more neglect and trauma in care than I did at home,’ she says.
Fast forward to Claire’s adult years and she believes that the stigma from being in care has followed her everywhere. ‘As an adult with your own children, the authorities write reports about your ability to be a mother and being in care as a child is always the first thing that’s noted. It’s used against you.’
Claire had her children removed because of similar circumstances to her own childhood – domestic violence at the hands of her partner and drug use in the home.
‘I tried to protect them,’ she says. ‘I reported my partner and put a restraining order on him as he had assaulted my son, too. But it was during these battles that the domestic abuse became more severe – it takes a lot of guts to report it and you sometimes feel in more danger as you go through the process.’
After social services took her children into care, Claire struggled for a further two years with poor mental health. She lost her home and everything fell apart.
‘Drugs became a welcome relief from the pain inside and so the cycle begins,’ she explains. ‘I was trying to get away from the pain through drugs but then with that comes the chaos and everything just comes back to haunt you.
‘At that point though, I didn’t care if I lived or died.’
According to Laura from Changing Lives the removal of children, temporary or otherwise, can be just as traumatic as the experiences that led to the women’s mental health and addiction problems in the first place, which is why it’s often better to try and find a way to keep families together.
‘Having a holistic, residential service approach with a focus on mother and child bonding is so important, and we see really positive outcomes when support is delivered in this way,’ she explains. ‘The growing bond increases the mother’s self-esteem and confidence and builds and strengthens the relationship with her baby. The child is more settled, and the mother has love and purpose in her life – key ingredients for recovery.’
Larissa Povey is a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and has conducted her doctoral research on women’s experiences of welfare interventions. She adds, ‘For pregnant women and newborns especially, offering a chance for them to stay together is so important.
‘If the child’s safety is of concern, then this could be accommodated in the home of another family member or a mother and baby unit. There are such resources for mothers with postpartum psychosis – why can’t this be extended to those who have experienced trauma?’
However, Darren*, a social worker who has worked across several local authorities in the West Midlands argues that the safety and welfare of children has to remain their priority.
‘A child is only removed when there is immediate risk of harm or enough evidence to suggest that needs are not being met. It really is a last resort,’ he explains.
‘There is a stigma still attached to children’s services and particularly the removal of children that gives an impression it is a common occurrence and easy process – which is often fed by uninformed and incorrect portrayals of children’s services, particularly in TV dramas – but it isn’t.’
Social worker Layla adds, ‘Domestic violence, in varying degrees, is a feature in around 71% of serious case reviews, which are reports completed following the death or serious injury of a child to establish what services need to learn from the tragedy.
‘Often it isn’t even the cause, but has been a significant feature within the family dynamic. However because the links between domestic violence and child abuse are high, local authorities aren’t willing to take any chances.’
Layla explains that while she agrees that protecting children from physical harm should be paramount in any decisions made by local authorities. ‘The black and white thinking often fails to take into account the emotional damage caused to children by being removed from their mothers.’ she says.
‘It also fails to take into account the grooming and brainwashing that victims of domestic abuse experience. But public witch hunts have a huge impact on this decision making, as the local authority and the social worker are more likely to be blamed publicly than the perpetrator.
‘Crucially, nobody wants to be responsible for making a decision that could lead to the death or harm of a child.’
According to Layla, who runs a social work issues themed Instagram account called Lalalaletmeexplain, there’s been an interesting development in social work practice through the The Safe and Together Model, which is being rolled out across local authorities.
‘It works around keeping children safe and together with the non-offending parent,’ she explains. ‘The model also seeks to ensure less victim blaming attitudes by professionals by removing some of the stigma associated with talking about domestic abuse and provides the tools to build better partnerships with victims.
‘It helps practitioners to spot less obvious signs of abuse and gives more weight to engaging and intervening with perpetrators and holding them accountable rather than the non-offending parent.
‘I think things will change massively once this is fully implemented across all local authorities.’
For Deborah, the shame of having her children temporarily removed have stayed with her ever since.
‘The 12-step fellowships for addiction recovery that I attended really changed my life, but I didn’t tell anybody in there at first – it’s such a shameful thing to have failed as a woman and a mother, to have lost your children, I just couldn’t bear it.’
While the family have worked hard to rebuild their life, Deborah says that they are still living with the after-effects.
She explains that although she hasn’t told anyone what they went through, a couple of parents at the school her children attend know what happened because of where they work and how they’re involved in the school. The result of this awareness means they don’t let their children associate with Deborah’s kids unsupervised and they aren’t allowed to come to her house – meaning that, again, children are the ones losing out on opportunities.
Deborah admits that she feels if her situation had been handled more sensitively by social services things could have been very different.
‘In my case, it felt as though the system was so frightened of mental health problems that they further traumatised a family in distress rather than being a source of support,’ she explains.
‘It’s time for stigma against mothers in my situation to stop, for assumptions to be dropped and collaboration to take place to make sure that women like me, and their children, are given the best chance possible to thrive.
‘We have a choice we can make to help families and stop history repeating itself.’
Click here to watch Open Clasp’s production of Sugar, which explores some of these issues.
Exploring the stories behind the headlines, In Focus is the brand new long read report series from Metro.co.uk.
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