Pause’s new report, Set Up to Fail, highlights how the disconnect between the recommendations in expert witness reports in care proceedings and the actual availability of local mental health services, is setting women up to fail.
When children are subject to care proceedings, often a psychological or psychiatric assessment is carried out by an expert witness, to assess parents’ mental health and ability to care for their child. The resulting report is used by the family court to help make a decision in the best interest of the child. However, these assessments have a lasting impact on birth parents.
Pause’s Set Up to Fail report finds that while most assessments contain a diagnosis and/or recommendations for treatment, they are simply used in care proceedings and not subsequently linked to local mental health services, nor to the parents’ GP.
‘Maya’ (not her real name) is a woman who is on the Pause Programme and experienced a psychological expert witness assessment as part of her care proceedings. She says:
“I had a psychological assessment at the end of my court case. It was posted to me weeks later. Luckily my solicitor had already gone through it with me. The diagnosis was that I had PTSD… There were loads of long words and the treatment he suggested couldn’t be achieved in the short time I had left. I had no idea how to access my treatment and when I did actually manage to, I was put on waiting lists. I’m still waiting three years later.”
The system fails to support birth parents and possibly even to contribute to preventing further children being taken into care through recurrent care proceedings.
Jules Hillier, CEO of Pause, says:
“The process of care proceedings and the removal of children from the care of their parents is traumatic for everyone involved, but we recognise is necessary to keep vulnerable children safe. These expert witness assessments have so much potential to be used to support women to achieve positive outcomes, potentially contributing to a reduction in the number of future children going into care. But as it stands, women are being told they need specific treatment that often isn’t available to them. This is unfair and, quite frankly, cruel. These women are being let down at a crucial time. Our report recommends some simple changes that could make a difference.”
Pause recommends that all future Letters of Instruction are amended, directing expert witnesses to take into account the services available locally. It also recommends the following actions for improvement:
- Create clear rules on sharing reports – or relevant sections of reports – with other professionals following care proceedings.
- Establish local multi-agency panels to review the support needs of parents after care proceedings have concluded. These panels should join up the recommendations from the expert witness reports and the local mental health services available.
- Carry out wider research to assess expert witness reports, with the aim of learning what they tell us about the mental health needs of women who have experienced the removal of children from their care and the required support services.