Women who have had children removed from their care are more likely to die prematurely

New observational data shows a high number of deaths among women who have experienced the repeat removal of children from their care.

Woman holding her head in her right arm

Academics from the University of Birmingham and the University of Edinburgh, in collaboration with national charity, Pause, share data that suggest women who have experienced the repeat removal of children from their care are 14 times more likely to die prematurely.

There continues to be a significant and growing number of children in care. As of March 2022, there were 82,170 children in care in England. While there is a wide body of research on why children end up in care and the outcomes for this group of children, there is less information known about the outcomes for children’s parents post-removal. Once a child has been removed, children’s services are structured so that support follows the child.

A new collaborative paper from Pause – a national charity that works with women who’ve had more than one child removed from their care – and the universities of Birmingham and Edinburgh, explores the enduring impact on parents once a child has been removed. It considers how this life event intersects with existing disadvantages and poor circumstances, such as poor mental health, problematic substance use, and domestic abuse, alongside poverty and racialisation, to cause further health inequities, and ultimately, premature death.

“It is important to recognise the intersecting, complex factors that lead to a child’s removal into care. Mothers in particular, face significant societal blaming and shaming. Yet in situations of domestic abuse, for example, they are victims themselves and most mothers go to extreme lengths to protect their children.”

Caroline Bradbury-Jones, Professor of Gender Based Violence and Health at the University of Birmingham.

Professor John Devaney, Centenary Chair of Social Work at the University of Edinburgh, says:

“This exploratory study is about more than statistics – it is about the lost lives of mothers in the wake of children’s removal into care. While children sometimes do need to be placed in alternative care, as a society, we should strive to help support mothers, and fathers, to get their life back on track. There is a stigma associated with a child’s removal into care. This should not act as a barrier to parents receiving support and accessing services. Our initial research with colleagues from Pause is hopefully the beginning of both understanding and addressing this phenomenon of early death.”

Since 2013, over 1,700 women have completed the 18-month Pause Programme. Based on Pause’s learning and observational data from the past decade, the paper finds that this group of women are 14 times more likely to die prematurely from a variety of causes, including ill-health, suicide, substance overdose and homicide.

These statistics indicate unmet health and other needs of vulnerable women who often fall through gaps in public services after care proceedings. Jules Hillier, Chief Executive of Pause, says:

“The findings of this paper are devastating, and we are confident that this figure is in fact an underestimate of the actual number of deaths, due to the limitations of the data underpinning the study and relatively small sample size. The women we work with have difficult and sometimes dangerous lives. Many experienced childhood adversity and grew up in care themselves, so are part of an intergenerational cycle. With a new government in place, we are calling on them to take urgent action to support this group of women. Mothers who’ve had children removed from their care must be acknowledged as needing care and support in their own right.”

There is currently no statutory obligation to deliver post-removal support to birth parents, despite being a high priority demographic facing complex disadvantage and often struggling with multiple physical and mental health issues. With a new government in place, now is an important opportunity to ensure the health needs of this group of vulnerable women are considered as a priority, recognising that care proceedings and the removal of children is linked to women being at greater risk of poor health outcomes, including premature death. It should be an alarm bell to services to respond and support appropriately.