This report documents the prevalence and experiences of Tasmanian parents who have children recurrently removed by Child Safety Services, and the experiences of the services that support them. Recurrent removal is when removal of a child is followed by a subsequent pregnancy, further court proceedings and another removal at or shortly after birth or during infancy. This tragic cycle can be repeated a number of times with children being ‘born into care’. Through interviews with 15 parents and over 80 service providers, the research documents the experience of removal and its consequences for parents, examines the current service network and its capacity to support them and reviews interventions which are being deployed in other jurisdictions, both nationally and internationally, to break this cycle.
One-fifth of birth mothers (20.5%) who have children removed by Child Safety Services in Tasmania will experience further removals, typically of babies and infants. Younger mothers are most at risk. Short intervals between repeat proceedings reduce opportunities for mothers to make the necessary changes to avoid a further removal. This is a highly vulnerable group of mothers. They often have histories in the OOHC system, high rates of mental health and substance use issues and experience of family violence, poverty and insecure housing.
Parents and services report a range of ‘collateral consequences’ when a child is removed. They include removal processes which are traumatic for both parents and children, an overwhelming grief and loss, reductions in income and threats to housing stability. At the same time parents are required to deal with legal processes, maintain positive access to their children and meet any conditions imposed by Child Safety Services and court orders to address safety concerns. These consequences can exacerbate existing difficulties, impose system-induced trauma on already vulnerable parents and result in another pregnancy. This has been described as a ‘perfect storm’.
Unless parents are on a reunification path there is little support available to them to assist in dealing with removal and its consequences. Although there is a complex network of programs and services working with families across the state, few are targeted to their specific needs and no one has the mandate to actively support them. This means contact with services is sporadic and engagement is problematic as parents try to access services which are often inappropriate to their needs. Parents who embark on another pregnancy face high levels of stress and anxiety about whether their unborn child will be removed, at a time when typically their material and emotional circumstances are deteriorating. However, the needs of vulnerable pregnant women and their histories become risks to the unborn child rather than eliciting support and parents describe being neglected and abused by the Child Safety System.
Removal and subsequent pregnancy present key opportunities to intervene and work with parents to promote insight into safety concerns, improve parenting capacity and circumstances, address underlying problems and break the cycle. Both parents and services want to see intensive casemanaged support available during pregnancy and after removal to assist in dealing with the collateral consequences, address safety concerns and provide a firmer base for the parenting of any future children. This support must be trauma-informed, relationship-based and delivered at arms-length from the Child Safety System to promote engagement.
The majority of birth families continue to see themselves as parents with an important role to play in their children’s lives, whether or not reunification is a possibility. Yet maintaining contact can be fraught with difficulty and gradually diminish as long term orders are applied and children settle into new lives. However, with over 50% of adolescents estimated to either self-place back with their birth families or return to them once they exit out-of-home care at 18, there is a strong case for assisting parents to sustain positive relationships with their children, address the underlying issues which led to removal and improve their future parenting capacity.
Other jurisdictions are now beginning to recognise this cohort of parents and develop interventions tailored to their needs and to reduce entry into out-ofhome care. Although interventions differ in terms of design, cost and intensity, they share key characteristics. These characteristics are intensive holistic support post-removal, tailored to individual need, and delivered by skilled, well-resourced professionals who can walk alongside parents and refer into specialist services which can appropriately meet their needs.
This research, and the research and policy literature more generally, highlights the human and financial costs of successively removing children from their birth parents. It identifies a policy gap where the focus of Child Safety on the needs of the child obscures and de-prioritises the needs of vulnerable parents. It identifies a growing concern that there is both a moral and practical imperative to support parents who experience removal to prevent recurrent removal, reduce entry into out-of-home care, sustain the parent/child bond and build a more solid foundation for parenting any future children.