Opinion

Family court sees trauma every day. Here's how we can help struggling parents break the cycle

Poor people don't have access to things like psychotherapy. But a mental health fund for disadvantaged parents might put an end to trauma being passed down the generations

Image: Shutterstock

Most of the children who are brought before the family court in care proceedings are from economically disadvantaged communities. The parents have often had traumatic childhoods themselves, but had no help to deal with the long-term repercussions and the impact on their ability to parent. 

When a local authority has evidence that a child is suffering or is at risk of suffering ‘significant harm’, the legal threshold is met for care proceedings to be issued. In most cases, before going to court, the social worker will start what is called the ‘pre-proceedings process’. The parent or parents are invited to a meeting and told in clear terms what the worries are and what they need to do in order for the local authority not to issue proceedings.

For example, a parent with a drug or alcohol problem may be told that she has to stop taking drugs or drinking, and that she has three months to turn things around. She may be signposted to her local drug or alcohol service, which may or may not have a waiting list. And if she fails to sort things out and improve her parenting, it’s very likely that care proceedings will be issued. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Depending on the circumstances, the local authority may ask the family court to order the temporary removal of a child at the beginning of the proceedings, or they may wait until all the evidence has been gathered. At the ‘final hearing’, some months in, the court considers the evidence and makes a decision about the child’s future: should he or she be placed in long-term foster care or entrusted to the care of a relative, or – in a small number of cases – placed for adoption. The court can also decide that the child should remain in, or return to, the care of the parents. 

Often the reason for the initial concern about the child is that the main carer – usually the mother – has deep-seated problems which manifest as mental health issues, or being in a relationship with a violent partner, or drug or alcohol abuse. While assessing her to provide information to the court, the social worker will often discover that the mother herself had a traumatic childhood (and, in some cases, spent time in care).

And very often the mother has not had any help to deal with the trauma; no mentoring, no counselling, no psychotherapy. These are not services to which the poorest parents in our society easily gain access.

If a parent is aware that past trauma is affecting her, she can seek help via her GP. But, unless she’s actively suicidal and extremely articulate and determined, the under-resourced NHS is unlikely to offer her more than a course of anti-depressants, a few sessions of CBT or access to tips on a website.

While this may help her get by in daily life, it will not get to the root damage done by childhood trauma. And if that trauma is what drives the mother’s alcohol or drug problem or her inability to leave a violent partner, nothing much is going to change for her or her child. 

Yet when things get bad enough for care proceedings, the state’s focus will be on the wellbeing of the child, not on how to help the mother resolve the trauma that’s driving her poor parenting.  

Care proceedings are conducted at high speed these days. The law requires that each case be completed by the court within just 26 weeks (six months) from start to finish, and applications for extensions are closely scrutinised. Sometimes the court directs a psychological assessment of the parent and, in most cases, the psychologist recommends that the parent needs therapy for a period of anything from five to 18 months.

The problem with this is two-fold. Firstly, legal aid will not pay for the therapy and neither will the cash-strapped local authority – and the family court lacks the legal power to order the local authority to do so. Secondly, the court is obliged to be mindful of the ‘timescale of the child’, which translates as the idea that children cannot wait for their parents to sort themselves out.

This is true, but it is surely a very good reason why high-quality psychotherapy should be offered to troubled parents on low incomes who are willing to engage in it long before concerns about their parenting reach crisis point.  

I would be in favour of the establishment of a national fund to provide high-quality psychotherapy (of various kinds) to parents on low incomes who are struggling to parent adequately. This would be so much more humane – and so much cheaper – than the current system, whereby some of the children of parents who themselves experienced childhood trauma are removed from the care of their parents, to grow up with relatives or strangers. 

Teresa Thornhill recently retired after 33 years working in the Family Court of England and Wales and its predecessor courts.

She is the author of In Harm’s Way: The Memoir of a Child Protection Lawyer, available now in hardback (HarperCollins, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.

You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan
Sudan conflict protest
Nick Beales

Sudan's year of war: How British government has failed UK residents with family in Sudan

A lifetime of playing the imitation game has reaped rewards
John Bird

A lifetime of playing the imitation game has reaped rewards

The difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh? Glasgow's beauty is not overt, but subtle and beguiling
The Glasgow studio of the Duke of Wellington
Robin Ince

The difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh? Glasgow's beauty is not overt, but subtle and beguiling

Myth of hard work needs to be busted. Luck and privilege are usually behind success
A man having a nap on a bench
Sam Delaney

Myth of hard work needs to be busted. Luck and privilege are usually behind success

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know