Exploring the family justice experience of young mothers in England
2 November 2023
ADR UK Research Fellow Dr Mariam Abouelenin has just started using the Family Court-Cafcass linked dataset in the SAIL Databank. In this blog, she describes some of the challenges young mothers face in the family justice system and how her research could help improve their experiences.
Why focus on young mothers in the family justice system?
Many of the mothers who become involved in family law proceedings in England find themselves repeatedly navigating the family justice system. Young mothers who become parents in their teenage years are especially prone to multiple court appearances. Research shows that roughly one in every four mothers with initial care proceedings is likely to return to the family court within seven years. For young mothers aged 14-19 years, this figure increases to one in every three.
Mothers appear in the family courts due to concerns about potential or actual significant harm to their children. This harm can arise for various reasons, including intimate partner violence, neglect, parental mental health problems, or substance misuse, or a combination of them. Depending on the severity of the situation and the child’s best interests, outcomes may range from support and monitoring to the temporary or permanent removal of the child from the parent’s care.
Our understanding of the frequency and patterns of young mothers’ family court appearances from their teenage years into early adulthood remains limited. We lack a clear picture of their experiences with the family justice system, the nature of their bonds with their children, the obstacles they face, and the resources and support available to them. All of these can significantly impact their journey within the family justice system and the outcomes for their children.
The ways young mothers interact with the family justice system can vary. Some may have repeated interactions soon after their first set of proceedings, while others might experience longer intervals between family court visits, possibly due to periods of stability or access to support. Other mothers may have a single encounter and never return to the family court.
Beyond just the frequency of interactions with the family justice system, the outcomes of these encounters can be life-altering. The risk of having parental rights terminated through adoption means young mothers might permanently lose their children. This loss can lead to intense psychological, emotional, and social consequences. Additionally, children who enter the care system may face potential negative outcomes, impacting their long-term well-being and development.
Using administrative data to address unanswered questions
The recent collaboration between the Ministry of Justice and Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) has produced a detailed, de-identified dataset covering 11 years of family court activity in England. This dataset includes information on hearings, such as the use of legal representation, and other support options for young mothers. This dataset allows us to build on previous research in this field.
In this project, I will be using the Family court-Cafcass linked dataset. The data provides a detailed look into the experiences of young mothers within the family justice system, especially those who became parents between the ages of 14-19. My primary focus will be on identifying the patterns and trajectories of their return to the family court.
I will also explore the challenges these mothers face, including the likelihood of their children being placed for adoption. The aim is to determine how frequently this occurs and identify factors that may make this outcome more or less likely.
Impact on policy and practice
Building on existing research about mothers in recurrent care proceedings, the findings could help guide tailored interventions to ensure the unique challenges of young mothers are addressed in policy and practice. The aim is to reduce these mothers’ unnecessary encounters with the family justice system and help them safely retain custody of their children, leading to better outcomes for both young mothers and children.