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Unsustained parental change group: children who were no longer safeguarded at home

There were nine parents (and ten children) in the unsustained parental change group. At the start of the study one of these children was classified as at low risk of significant harm – children’s social care had primarily been involved because the child had a disability requiring intensive care which the mother was finding it difficult to engage with because she was suffering from post natal depression. The other children in this group were all classified as at medium risk because their parents had already made substantial changes before their first birthdays. By the time they were three, the major problems had apparently been overcome, and, as with the sustained parental change group, all children in this group were classified as at low risk of significant harm. However, by the time they were eight, the circumstances of children in the unsustained parental change group had deteriorated (or more evidence of parents’ problems had become apparent), and four of them had been placed away from home, while five were living with birth parents, four at medium and one at high risk of harm.

The most common reasons for the deteriorating circumstances of families in this group were recurrent domestic abuse and the mother’s mental health problems.

These were often combined, although in two families (three children) domestic abuse was more prominent and in four families fluctuating parental mental health problems played a greater part. In the other three families, new evidence came to light that indicated that previous assessments of parental change had been over-optimistic (see below). The case, illustrated below, is an example of deteriorating

circumstances relating to abusive relationships:

This study child’s father had a history of perpetrating domestic abuse and had mental health problems. His mother had also been severely neglected as a child, resulting in the prosecution and conviction of his grandmother.

When he was five months old he suffered a non-accidental head injury, caused by his father shaking him. Subsequently the study child was placed in foster care whilst parenting assessments were completed. Both these were positive, but by the time the father’s was completed, the study child’s mother had extricated herself from the relationship and, at 11 months old he was rehabilitated to her care. Around the time of the study child’s first birthday, the case was closed to children’s social care.

Before the study child’s third birthday, his mother had formed a relationship with a new partner. However, her new partner also had a history of

perpetrating domestic abuse and by his fourth birthday there had been several episodes of violence in his home, and his mother was struggling to look after herself, her children and their home. At around this time, the study child became the subject of a child protection plan, his behaviour had become

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increasingly aggressive and his speech and language development was delayed.

When the study child was five, the police were called to the house by neighbours who could hear a loud argument. The police report expressed concerns that he and his siblings were being severely neglected. From about this time, children’s social care intensified their involvement because of further incidents of domestic abuse and concerns in relation to the neglect and

emotional abuse of the study child and his siblings. Under pressure from children’s social care, his mother ended the relationship; however she now had two children by this partner and he maintained contact. By the age of eight years, the study child had substantial emotional and behavioural difficulties, which had recently included hearing the imaginary voice of his mother’s ex-partner telling him to stab her with a kitchen knife and he was in receipt of intensive support services from school to help him come to terms with these difficulties.

(Boy: medium risk of significant harm at birth; low risk at age three; high risk at age five; medium risk at age eight – unsustained parental change)

The other issue which notably affected parents’ ability to maintain initial positive changes was the re-emergence of long-standing mental health problems. For instance, one child’s mother succeeded in overcoming her mental health problems as well as her addiction to heroin for the first five years of his life. However, her mental health then began to deteriorate, and she had several admissions to psychiatric hospital within a year, the last one because she had threatened to kill herself and her child. As a result, he went to live with his maternal grandmother.

Other parents’ mental health issues were not so dramatic: the case presented below is of a child who experienced a more nuanced trajectory:

During the early months of this study child’s life, his mother suffered from post natal depression. She had suicidal feelings and felt she might harm her baby.

The study child consequently became the subject of a child protection plan.

He and his mother moved into his grandmother’s home, and three months later, following a family group conference, children’s social care involvement ceased. However, his mother and grandmother’s relationship was not always supportive and could at times be volatile. When the study child was about 18 months old, he and his mother were evicted from his grandmother’s home.

They were rehoused into a one bedroom flat, but the conditions were very cramped.

By the study child’s third birthday, he and his mother had moved to alternative accommodation, but it was still very cramped. He was displaying emerging emotional and behavioural difficulties. However his mother was in a new relationship and she was not showing signs of mental health problems. By the study child’s sixth birthday, children’s social care had become involved again and he was offered services as a child in need. His mother was experiencing several difficulties including poor housing, social isolation, hostility from the

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neighbourhood within which they lived and deteriorating physical and mental health. The study child’s emotional and behavioural difficulties had also become more severe. By the age of eight these circumstances had

deteriorated further and his mother’s physical and mental health had severely worsened. The child had at least twice been physically attacked by other children on the estate, on one occasion so severely that the police had been called. Further support for his mother and her children was not forthcoming.

(Boy: medium risk of significant harm at birth; low risk at age three; medium risk at age five; medium risk at age eight – unsustained parental change) The presence of secondary risk factors, including social isolation, long-term poverty, poor housing, hostile neighbourhoods, and poor physical health is very evident amongst parents in the unsustained change group, and exacerbated the challenges they faced in maintaining the positive changes they had previously made. The birth of more children from new relationships and the problems of maintaining complicated contact arrangements also increased the vulnerability of these parents, who also often had to cope with increasing emotional and behavioural difficulties displayed by their older children. For instance, one mother was caring on her own for four

children, one of whom was severely disabled, and two of whom had significant behavioural problems. She was also trying to juggle contact arrangements with two birth fathers, one of whom was forbidden any form of contact with two of the children in the household. She was struggling to manage on a minimal income that did not allow for any savings to cover emergency expenses. However the family had recently been helped to move to accommodation that was in better condition than their previous home.

The following chapter explores evidence of emotional and behavioural difficulties amongst the sample children; it shows that the prevalence of difficulties is greater amongst children in the unsustained parental change group than those who were living with parents who were able to sustain improvements to parental capability.

Some children in the unsustained change group were showing evidence of extremely challenging behaviour: for instance, one child had been excluded from school three times by the time he was eight, and the volunteer who had been found to act as his mentor was recorded as being ‘frightened of him’. His mother had successfully extricated herself from a violent relationship by the time he was three, but had then become increasingly dependent on alcohol.

A key finding from our previous reports (see Ward, Brown and Westlake, 2012a;

Ward, Brown and Maskell Graham, 2012b) was that there was often a premature withdrawal of services, particularly when parents had succeeded in overcoming their difficulties. These cases were often closed abruptly and with no further monitoring or support. Parents were also highly unlikely to contact children’s social care

themselves if they experienced further difficulties, because understandably they

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were fearful that evidence of further problems would be interpreted as grounds for judging them to be incapable of looking after their children. The cases illustrated above highlight these issues.

However some parents’ apparent inability to maintain changes is only part of the picture. In some families new information came to light after the children’s third birthdays that made it clear that the changes that appeared to have been made in the first three years were largely illusory. For instance, one child, was thought to have been adequately safeguarded because she and her siblings had been made the subjects of care orders and placed with their mother with the stipulation that all contact with the father, who was considered to pose a danger to children, should cease. However, although it was now concealed, the relationship continued. Finally, after two and a half more years the parents were ‘caught out’ when one of the

children ‘let slip’ at school that she was seeing her father. He explained:

Would you blame the girl [child’s older sibling], do you blame her... all she’s had is fright and fear whenever somebody comes to the door, she comes and shouts ‘Daddy social services are here’ I can’t blame the girl at all from saying that, she’s had a horrible life, and the social worker would say ‘Have you seen your Dad?’ and the girl would have to lie... it was a horrible experience.

(Birth father of study child: age eight interview)

(Girl: medium risk of suffering harm at birth; low risk at age three; high risk at age five; permanently separated at age eight – unsustained parental change) It could be argued that this child’s parents, as well as another mother, whose

longstanding alcohol dependency did not come to light for more than three years, should have been re-classified as parents who had shown little or no capacity to change and placed in the minimal change group. However we have not done so because this is a prospective study, our data are collected and analysed in real time, as and when events in the children’s lives are occurring and their circumstances changing. We therefore have not used the benefit of hindsight in our analysis of these cases; instead we used only the evidence that was available for each child at each time point. This has facilitated greater understanding of the reasoning and evidence which formed the basis of key social work decisions for these children (see Chapter Six for further exploration).

Three of the four children in the unsustained parental change group who were placed away from home after their fifth birthdays were removed at least partly because new evidence had come to light that identified long-standing problems that had previously passed unnoticed: one child and her siblings had been made subjects of care orders since she was 12 months old, but had continued to live at home with their birth mother. Four and a half years later they were removed and placed with local authority foster carers when it became apparent that they had been secretly

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seeing their father; a second child was removed from his birth mother when the alcoholism which had been a problem since she was fifteen, came to light; and a third child was abruptly removed from his birth father because he was thought to have been subject to physical abuse for many years - an issue that was hotly denied.

Only child in this group was placed away from home because his parents had genuinely changed: this child was placed with his grandmother at six years old because his mother’s mental health problems re-emerged.

Persistent concerns about the children’s welfare: minimal