Study shows how fast vulnerable parents can change

Vulnerable parents who have the capacity to change their lives usually do so before their child is six months old, according to new research from Loughborough University.

About one-third of the birth parents were able to overcome substance misuse, mental health problems and domestic violence to provide a nurturing home. All of those who did make significant and lasting changes did so before the baby was six months, and most did so in the pregnancy stages. For some, the birth was the catalyst.

However, 43% of the children who took part in the study and remained with their birth families were considered to be at continuing risk of significant harm at the age of three from parents who had not changed or whose situation had deteriorated.

Professor Harriet Ward, who led the study, said by the time they were three more than half of these children displayed developmental delay or showed signs of significant behavioural difficulties, most prominently aggression and speech problems.

“Almost all of the initial decisions made by practitioners were temporary, taking an average of 14 months for definitive decisions to be made, and a further six months for these to be realised,” Ward said.

“Adoption orders often took longer and many had not been completed by the time the children were three. The well-being of over half the children who were permanently separated was doubly jeopardised, owing to late separation from an abusive birth family, followed by the disruption of a close attachment with an interim carer when they entered a permanent placement.”

The study focused on 57 children in 10 local authorities from 2006 who were the subject of a core assessment, section 47 enquiry or became looked after before their first birthdays; 43 were followed until they were three.

Interviews with social workers led the authors to conclude that child development was only a small part of their training and was quickly forgotten. Some showed little understanding of infant attachments, the impact of maltreatment on long-term well-being, or of how delayed decisions undermined children’s life chances. In addition, no formal paediatric assessments took place.

“A major cause of the delays was specialist parenting assessments made by psychologists, psychiatrists or independent social workers,” Ward said.

“All recommendations were followed with two-thirds advising that children should remain with their birth parents, although subsequently over half these children had to be removed from the parental home.

“Further delays were caused by assessments of numerous extended family members as potential carers, sometimes regardless of their proven inability to care for a child. Some of the relatives had extensive histories of offending and their own children had very poor outcomes. Many family placements were nearing breakdown at the end of the study.”

She said the study raised questions over current thresholds for significant harm, particularly where neglect or emotional abuse are the key issues. The authors recommended that professionals and policymakers ask more stringent questions about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable levels of parenting.

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