Breaking the Cycle is about the recurrent removal of children from their birth parents. By ‘recurrent’ or repeat removal, we’re talking about cases where removal of a child or children by Child Safety is followed by another pregnancy, further court proceedings and removal of the new baby. For some parents this tragic cycle can be repeated a number of times, with children in effect being ‘born into care’.
Over the past six years there has been a growing international interest in these parents. A number of questions immediately leap to mind: How prevalent is recurrent removal in Tasmania? What does this experience look like from the perspective of the vulnerable birth parents? How do services work to support them? What are other jurisdictions doing to break this cycle, and how effective are they?
We can answer the first question now: repeat removals are a real problem in Tasmania. We found that one-fifth of birth mothers who have children removed go on to experience recurrent removal. Over an 18-year period 572 children entering the out-of-home care system came from parents who had already experienced child removal.
These birth mothers tend to be young and highly vulnerable. Often they were from families with histories of contact with child protection services during their own childhoods. They have a pattern of increasingly rapid recurrent removals, often within one year of a previous removal. Such short intervals give mothers little opportunity to make the changes necessary to prevent further removal.
When children are removed their birth parents experience a whole range of collateral consequences. The removal process itself can be traumatic for both parents and children. Following removal, parenting payments are withdrawn, leading to dramatic and sudden reductions in income that can cause housing instability and homelessness. And of course parents experience profound grief and loss after losing care of their children, as any parent would.
These consequences can lead to escalations in drug and alcohol use, in levels of domestic violence and in worsening mental health. At the same time parents are required to deal with legal processes, go on access visits, work constructively with child safety services and meet any conditions imposed by court orders. This has been described as a perfect storm. Parents experience their life falling apart around them as they struggle to come to terms with the emotional and practical consequences of having their children removed.
The boys were taken, there were problems with access. I was constantly trying to negotiate with my real estate agent so that we could keep the house. In the end I just thought I can’t keep up with this. I was without money for a long time from Centrelink. I explained to the child safety worker that I had to pack everything up and give the house up and she said why. The workers had no idea about what people are forced to do to survive. … I went into hospital because I just wasn’t feeling right, I felt I wanted to die. I didn’t know what to do and my whole world was falling apart. I stood to lose everything and I did lose everything. (Laura)
Both parents and support services working with them feel that the child safety system had never acknowledged the degree of trauma they experience. Parents talk about never being able to move away from the shadow of their past lives – from previous removals or from traumatic events in their own childhoods. Many described overcoming enormous personal challenges in their own lives only to lose their children to child safety services.
You cannot escape your past history. They judge you. … Nobody else out there can judge me harder than I judge myself. Basically I’m being told that I am not fit to raise my children, you’re not good enough to be a mother. I worked my bum off to make sure the apple fell far from the tree and they are just treating me like I’m no different to my mum and that’s not fair. I have never hurt my children like she did us. (Mary)
A key finding of the research is that it is no one’s mandate to actively support parents. Tasmania does have a network of programs and services working with families, but few are targeted to the specific needs of these parents. Once a child is removed parents described just being dropped by services. This becomes particularly stark when we remember that many of these young mothers were once the vulnerable child that everyone is so concerned about, but are now the wrong side of 18.
We had support from various organisations over the years but there is no support whatsoever once they take your children from you, none whatsoever. Once they take those children from you there is nothing at all. … It’s a vicious cycle. You’ve been in care, your children have been in care and your grandchildren are in care. … We need to be talking about it. I felt I was the only person in the whole world, a statistic mum. (Amy)
Those who embark on another pregnancy face high levels of stress and anxiety about whether their unborn child will be removed. Their needs and their histories can become risks to the unborn child rather than a reason for giving them extra support and they reported little help to break the pattern of repeat proceedings.
I was terrified about what might happen. I didn’t go to any antenatal appointments. … I didn’t trust the GP down at the medical centre. I didn’t trust any of the hospital doctors. No one got close to me. … It’s the worse stress possible. It’s had an impact on myself and the children and my relationship with them. It’s affected my relationship with my partner. I don’t trust anyone with the department. (Kaylee)
Among the parents involved in this research most continued to see themselves as parents with an important role to play in their children’s lives. Yet most experienced challenges in maintaining contact, particularly when long term orders are in place. Other research has suggested that over half of those placed in out-of-home care return to their birth families either during adolescence or when they reach 18. This means there is a strong case for helping parents to maintain positive relationships with their children and improve their future parenting capacity.
The child safety redesign process in Tasmania has led to intensive interventions for those on the cusp of removal. What this research suggests is that our current expectation that parents will just fix themselves following removal is totally unrealistic. We need to be able to provide intensive support to these families to provide a firmer base for reunification or for the parenting of any future children.
There are interventions in other jurisdictions which aim to do just that. They vary in terms of design, cost and intensity, but they all provide relationship-based support post removal which is trauma-informed and tailored to the individual needs of families. They offer a skilled professional who can work at arm’s-length from Child Safety Services and who can walk alongside parents, support them and assist them to access any specialist services they need.
What the research highlights is the enormous human cost of not tackling the issue of recurrent removal. Our current system seeks to protect children but pays little attention to the welfare of mothers who were often damaged by child protection failures when they were children themselves. This is a system that writes these parents off and so the cycle of misery goes on.