We spoke to Jasmin Meier, a Researcher and Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist in training, about her research interviewing mothers at risk of recurrent care proceedings in Family Drug and Alcohol Court.
What is this piece of research about?
This qualitative research is about mothers who are repeatedly going through care proceedings with their children and have had successive children removed from their care. This trend of ‘recurrency’ has been brought into the spotlight through a growing area of research, from which we have learned about the magnitude of this problem but also about these mothers’ experiences and behaviours, and how these are linked to their own previous trauma.
We were interested more specifically in the period of a new pregnancy; what are mothers’ state of mind during their pregnancy with a child they are at risk of losing, but also, are there opportunities for intervention during that time? The research was conducted with a group of mothers engaging with the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, an innovative problem-solving court approach with courts in several locations across England.
What were the main findings from your research?
We found that a new pregnancy evokes many of the struggles that mothers have experienced previously at the time of removal of a child from their care. The children previously lost to care were very ‘alive’ in their minds and there was a feeling of loss and grief in relation to that. They had mixed feelings: hope to keep this baby but also fear that it would be taken away. For some mothers, it appeared to provide strong motivation for recovery, for example from substance use. Our data also showed examples of how mothers were in touch with their unborn baby’s dependency on them, which provided an opportunity for reflective parenting interventions before birth.
What do we know as a result of this research that we didn't know before?
This is the first study that explores the thoughts, feelings and expectations of mothers who have gone through care proceedings previously and are currently experiencing a new pregnancy.. The importance of the children already lost to care, their mostly painful relationships with their own mothers, their struggle to picture their new baby before birth as well as the connection between pregnancy and the recovery process were some important topics these mothers raised, that had not been empirically reported in this way before.
What was the most unexpected finding to come out of your research?
One area of intervention in work with mothers who are at risk of care proceedings are the negative representations they might have of their unborn babies. Previous research has highlighted that the baby’s ordinary fetal movements can be experienced as threatening and attacking by mothers. In contrast, all mothers in our study reported taking pleasure in these movements. It could be an extremely helpful area of intervention to nurture the capacity to experience the baby and their movements, and therefore his/her needs and dependency, as something pleasurable.
Another promising and unexpected finding was how much some mothers were able to be realistic about their baby’s future and looming care proceedings. With the high risk of losing their baby to the care system, it would make sense to shy away from investing into thoughts of a future, or maybe to idealise the future – yet some mothers could embrace the uncertainty and have some realistic expectations. Interestingly, those mothers who were able to do so, did keep their babies after birth.
How did you approach conducting the research with this group?
One important thing in this research was that we did not want to interrupt the processes of support mothers received through the Family Drug and Alcohol Court programme. We were lucky that audio material of semi-structured interviews was already available, which were routinely collected for clinical use, research, and evaluation of the programme. These doubled as a research tool for us. We were conscious that it was a significant ask to make this audio material further available and that there was a power imbalance. One way we addressed this was to place mothers’ voices at the centre of the research, to give their perspectives prominence and therefore power of expression.
What are your hopes for the impact that this research will have?
My most basic hope is that the research can increase understanding of these mothers and their state of mind during pregnancy. If it can highlight some areas for intervention for practitioners in the field, that would be fantastic.
Presenting these women’s voices within the literature has an impact in itself, I believe the grief of mothers who have lost children to the care system are often unrecognised and as a result unresolved. Only when we understand the complex reasons behind repeat pregnancies can we structurally adjust the support to prevent cycles of repeat care proceedings. Of course, child protection and child welfare guide our social care system and should continue to do so, but my hope would be that the research can inform the innovative practice that is already taking place in the area of recurrency. I hope it can also highlight how worthwhile research in this area is and prompt more research about the topic.
The full research paper can read here.
For more information, resources and research on the support that FDACs provide, please visit the FDAC website.