Vulnerable birth mothers and recurrent care proceedings

This project examined care proceedings cases in the family courts where mothers have had successive children removed from their care.  

We initially funded the team's feasibility studywhich undertook a preliminary analysis of data held by the Children and Family Court Advisory Service (Cafcass) and identified a large proportion of mothers subject to repeat proceedings who are highly vulnerable and whose situations make exceptional demands on children’s services and the courts.  

We then funded the team's in-depth study which used mixed methods to further explore this problem and consider what might be done. The study comprised quantitative analysis of records relating to 65,000 birth mothers who appeared in care proceedings at least once between 2007/08 and 2015/16; analysis of case files relating to 354 recurrent mothers to provide data on the characteristics and history of the cases; and in-depth semi-structured interviews with 72 recurrent birth mothers.

This innovative study has revealed the extent of recurrent care proceedings and highlighted the experience of women who have had successive children removed from their care. The research found that over 11,000 mothers had more than one child removed between 2007 and 2014.  Many of these women had been in care themselves. 40% of the mothers had been in foster care or children’s homes with a further 14% living in private or informal relationships away from their parents. The study also revealed the high levels of abuse and neglect women had suffered in their lives as children.

These mothers often had their first child in their teenage years.  They struggled with parenting and many also exhibited a range of complex issues, including substance misuse, domestic violence and mental health issues. The study also identified that for repeat mothers there is often a relatively short gap between a removal and birth of another child, leaving little time for the mother to demonstrate change. Many repeat removals were of babies soon after birth.

The experiences and behaviours of these women needs to be understood in the context of the trauma they themselves experienced in childhood and the trauma of having their own children removed, often with limited help and support available to them to turn their lives around once a child is removed.  

The study has stimulated significant investment in new preventative programmes. However, more needs to be done to address the negative cycle uncovered, including addressing at an earlier stage the impacts of trauma on girls and young women in  care and providing the necessary support to women on the removal of a child to give them a chance to turn their lives around.  

The women interviewed demonstrated that it was possible to make positive progress in their lives and go onto care for a new baby. With more widespread and consistent provision of empathic and therapeutic professional help and access to appropriate services and interventions more women could be helped out of the damaging cycle of repeat removals.   

Project details



Professor Karen Broadhurst, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Lancaster University


Professor Judith Harwin (Brunel University)

Dr Mike Shaw (Tavistock and NHS Portman Trust)

Grant amount and duration


November 2013 - April 2014 (feasibility study)


September 2014 - January 2018 (in-depth analysis)

Detailed project summary and project website
Media and publications

Professor Judith Harwin and Dr Bachar Alrouh, ‘New entrants and repeat children: continuity and change in care demand over time’ [April 2017] Fam Law 407

Professor Karen Broadhurst and Dr Stuart Bedston, ‘Women in recurrent care proceedings in England (2007–2016): Continuity and change in care demand over time’ [April 2017] Fam Law 412.

Birth Parents and the Collateral Consequences of Court-ordered Child Removal: towards a comprehensive framework, by Karen Broadhurst and Claire Mason, March 2017

Statement on findings of feasibility study, 23.06.14

'Thousands of mothers have multiple babies removed', BBC Today Programme feature, 23.06.14

'Capturing the scale and pattern of recurrent care proceedings: initial observations from a feasibility study', Family Law, 23.06.14