Mothers who have their children removed by the state are haunted by the shame of being judged a deeply flawed mother. They are haunted, too, by the ‘ghosts’ of the children they have lost – a unique form of loss and trauma, as their child has not died but is living elsewhere. Their children are there and yet not there; they are living and yet out of reach and invisible. Moreover, the mothers are silenced through the stigma and shame, the justifiable fear of future children being removed, and court-ordered reporting restrictions.
Over 68,000 birth mothers had children subject to care proceedings in the Family Court between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2021. Under section 31 of the Children Act 1989, concerns that require a Local Authority to make a court application include neglect and physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse of a child. Issues for parents include domestic violence, use of substances, mental health, learning disabilities, contact with the criminal justice system, and the mother herself still being in state care. Strikingly, roughly a quarter of parents who have their children removed are themselves care leavers. Child protection in England has tended to focus on risk, with scant attention to social, political and economic factors, despite a strong association between children’s chances of experiencing abuse or neglect and poverty.
Remarkably, once care proceedings end, the mothers are effectively abandoned by the state. ‘Annie’, a birth mother recounts how she had her four-day-old baby taken from her in the maternity ward under a court order and was then sent home in a taxi, alone. Children’s Services do not remain involved as there is no longer a child of concern, and the Court does not monitor the provision of any of the services, such as therapy, recommended during the proceedings. The women involved in these cases tend not to meet the stringent criteria to access mainstream Community Mental Health services. Thus, they are left to deal with the trauma and loss of a child on their own, particularly as they may be ostracised by family and friends due to the stigma and shame of state-ordered removal.
There may be material consequences, too – the loss of child-related benefits and the risk of losing their home that is now ‘under-occupied’. It is perhaps understandable that the women (re)turn to drugs and alcohol or violent relationships, or indeed, become pregnant again, as a way to ameliorate their grief.
Instead of getting my head together and getting them back, I did the opposite and started drinking even more … They’d took my kids and it made me worse.
From In our Hearts: Stories and wisdom from mothers who live apart from their children, WomenCentre Calderdale and Kirklees.
Stigmatised as failed mothers, they exist in the margins. They long for a future of reconciliation with their children, while enduring the separation laid down by the Family Court. Some mothers carry images and the names of their children on their body in the form of tattoos – a literal stigma (mark) which could make the loss visible to others. However, the tattoos may be hidden, placed on parts of the body kept invisible, or through the careful choice of symbols and images which embody the absent child with the meaning only known to the mother.
Groups such as Breaking the Cycle and the Common Threads Collective constitute spaces where mothers can meet with others who are living with similar experiences. Sharing their experiences of grief and shame, they can negotiate the stigma of being deemed ‘failed mothers’ by the state. It enables them to develop the consciousness that the situations in which they found themselves were often outside of their ‘control’ or ‘choices’ in any simple way, revealing the absence of resources and the deep structural inequalities in which they live. This is not to deny or minimise the lived reality of children who are experiencing neglect and abuse. But the mothers’ stories challenge the dominant neoliberal discourse of individual blame.
The mothers’ experiences highlight the need to understand the structural causes, such as poverty and domestic violence, which lead to court-ordered removals in the first place. How many children might stay with their mothers in the context of a more equal distribution of resources and a strong welfare state with comprehensive services to support families?
I originally wrote about the stigma of being a mother living apart from her child(ren) as a result of state-ordered removal in an article in The Sociological Review Monographs 2018, Vol. 66(4) and have also talked about it on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.
Dr Lisa Morriss, Lecturer in Social Work, Lancaster University