The impact on children of multiple returns to birth parents

Professionals are struggling with the impact of repeatedly returning children to their birth parents. Camilla Pemberton investigates.

Professionals are struggling with the impact of repeatedly returning children to their birth parents. Camilla Pemberton investigates.

The piece of paper placed carefully on top of Ryan’s suitcase, neatly packed and sitting by the front door, read: “Please don’t send me back home again, I’m begging you. Nothing’s changed and I want to stay here.” On the other side: “Don’t tell Mum I said that.”

They were the desperate words of a 14-year-old boy about to be sent home after eight months in foster care. Lucy, his social worker, recalls the moment: “Ryan always said he wanted to go home, but this was a cry for help at the 11th hour.”

New to the case, Lucy was horrified to find the teenager had already been sent home six times in the past four years. Each time, social workers believed his mother had left her violent partner for good but, Lucy says, the necessary checks were not done. She also claims no one took a full overview of Ryan’s case history and journey through the care system, leaving him “yo-yoing between home, foster care and children’s homes”.

Ryan’s experiences are reflected in academic research and government figures, which suggest he is one of many children losing out as professionals struggle to achieve permanent solutions for children.

Statistics kept by the Department for Education (DfE) show 12% of children who enter care each year have been looked after before. A 2009 study by Elaine Farmer, professor of child and family studies at Bristol University, found 64% of the 180 looked-after children involved had had one or more failed returns. More than one-third (35%) had undergone two or more.

“There is a clear correlation between failed returns and emotional difficulties: every failed return creates anxiety and instability for the child,” says Enver Solomon, assistant director of policy at Barnardo’s. “A failed return can cause tremendous damage,” says Jeffrey Coleman of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), pointing to a second study by Farmer which found nearly two-thirds of children who entered care due to neglect were abused again on their return.

A report commissioned by Barnardo’s, and published last month by think-tank Demos, has now called on the DfE to amend care planning guidance to ensure there are fewer failed reunions, and to introduce better resourced and time limited reunification plans. It argued plans should stipulate that reunifications “cannot be attempted if the problems that had originally instigated the child’s need to be looked after have not been resolved”.

The reason reunifications fail appears simple enough: a failure of birth families to overcome the problems that led to their child being taken into local authority care. But the reasons why families fail, and why they are allowed to fail repeatedly, is infinitely more complex, Farmer says.

Her research found 48% of returns were initiated not because problems had been resolved, but because external pressures had threatened placements. These included cost considerations, difficult behaviour from the child and pressure from courts or parents.

Like Ryan’s social workers, Farmer says the professionals she interviewed tended not to have a view of the child’s entire history and journey through care. As a result, exactly how many times a child had been returned was often missed. She believes this is endemic in too many children’s services departments.

“Returns are recorded, but there’s not always a clearly logged chronology so the exact number might not be picked out easily in an open file. Decisions about a return are often made under pressure and in a moment of time. We need to make sure a child’s history is visible and easy to access.”

She laments the “woeful” lack of research into the subject. “People think of children going into care, and see the return as the end goal. However, if you turn the spotlight onto return itself you often get a very different picture.”

Solomon blames, in part, a prevailing belief within children’s services that birth family is best. He also cites a “culture of last resortism” when it comes to care and a tendency for professionals to give parents the benefit of the doubt.

Farmer identified parental substance misuse as a key issue in failed returns. “In my research, 46% of mothers were dependent on drugs or alcohol yet only 5% were provided with treatment. People underplay how much of a problem this is.”

Brenda Farrell, UK assistant director for family placement at Barnardo’s, adds: “When a child is removed, parents should receive support for their multiplicity of problems. Better joined-up working, better planning and proactive leadership will make returns far less vulnerable to failure.”

Case study: Sasha’s 10 years in care

‘Going to and from care was so disruptive’

Sasha had to deal with eight failed returns during her 10 years in care.

“My mother was a classic case of someone who wanted to be a good mum but just wasn’t cut out for it,” Sasha says.

“I was sent back repeatedly – not always to my mum’s, sometimes to my gran’s – because mum pressured me and my social workers. She said she’d kill herself if I didn’t go home so I’d run away from my foster carers and act up so they’d have no choice but to return me.

“Mum was given so many chances because she always seemed to be getting better. But she’d always relapse. When I was sent to my gran’s, she’d come and demand I went home. Gran always gave in.”

By 13, Sasha had become her mum’s drinking partner. Now 18, she is seeking help but knows getting clean will take time.

“Going to and from care was so disruptive,” she says. “Each time I was sent to a different foster placement because another child always needed the bed while I was away.

“At the time I thought all kids should be at home. But I wish someone had made the final decision that actually it was never going to be the best place for me.”

Questions to ask before a return

● Has there been an improvement in the original concerns?

● Is there a significant change in the way parents are thinking and behaving?

● Do they recognise the harm they caused and how to put it right?

● Have they recognised positive changes in their children since they have been looked after?

● Do they recognise how serious it is that their children were taken into care?

● Are there plenty of resources available to parents and children and are they engaged with services?

● Is the child receiving therapy, if needed, and who else is around to give them support?

● At placement assessment meetings, clearly set out the expectations on parents and ask yourself: are the parents motivated? Look at parents being parents in their home, not just in contact centres.

● If a child has been returned more than once, have the parents been able to stay out of trouble for at least one year?

Source: Indeep Sethi, senior practitioner, Camden Council’s looked-after children team

The risk factors

● Are parents likely to relapse?

● Are there negative influences that will be disruptive to the child?

● What does the child want? Is a return truly in their best interests?

● How many times has the child been returned? Even more than one failed return should raise alarm bells.

Source: Indeep Sethi, senior practitioner, Camden Council’s looked-after children team

This article is published in the 29 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Many unhappy returns

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