Supporting roots: report

Report providing a broad picture of the needs of birth parents who have lost a child or children to ‘care’, and of the support and services that are currently available in Scotland. This report is designed to support best practice and service innovation.

Introduction to the Report

This report comprises three separate parts, each of which can be understood and read in its own right:

  • Part 1: Short evidence review on support for birth parents
  • Part 2: The experiences and views of birth parents
  • Part 3: Services and support in Scotland for birth parents

Together, these three parts of the report provide a broad picture of the needs of birth parents who have lost a child or children to ‘care’, and of the support and services that are currently available in Scotland. Work on this project was originally commissioned by the Scottish Government, in recognition of the distinct needs of birth parents who are living apart from their children, as a result of child welfare interventions. Members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government colleagues recognised that although there was a substantial evidence base developing around the needs and views of birth parents and family members, service development in Scotland in response to these needs has been limited. Therefore, this project was designed to support best practice and service innovation nationally.

Discussion about the Supporting Roots work began in 2019, immediately prior to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic both delayed and limited the scope of the project in important ways. However, over time and as restrictions to movement have allowed, the three parts of the report have gradually been completed. As authors, we hope that the report will be helpful to practitioners and policymakers who are working in this field. We also hope that the report provides some representation of the views of parents who are impacted by family separation as a result of child welfare proceedings. The authors are immensely grateful to all those people who have lived experience, and all those practitioners in Scotland who have been a part of the work that led to this report. We are also grateful to Scottish Government colleagues who have kept this agenda alive throughout many challenges, and for the continued interest that Scottish ministers have in improving the experiences of families across Scotland. There is a strong appetite for the development of practice in this area among all stakeholders, and we hope that this report acts as one stepping-stone in the path to change.

In terms of language, there is no terminology that can fully capture the experience that families have when children are removed as a result of child protection concerns or child welfare issues, and a plan for permanent care of children outside of the immediate family is made. In this report we have generally used the terminology ‘birth parents’ and ‘birth family members’ but as authors we do acknowledge that some people with this lived experience prefer alternative terms, including ‘first family’ or simply parents. The choice of terms in this report reflects the most commonly agreed terminology in the field and we hope avoids confusion.

Generally, in this report, the focus is on families where children have been ‘permanently’ removed from the care of their immediate birth family, although they may be living in a kinship care arrangement with relatives. In Scotland, four routes to permanence are currently recognised and supported by legislation: remaining or returning to the care of parents, a permanence order, a kinship care order, or an adoption order. Children and young people who are growing up in permanent alternative care arrangements may be doing so in settings that include foster care, a residential care facility, kinship care, or within an adoptive family. There is likely to be some ongoing contact with birth parents and siblings written into any legal order in place for children growing up in these settings, ranging from annual ‘letterbox’ contact to regular, in-person contact. Any permanent arrangement that separates a child from their birth parents has significant impacts on birth family members, and for birth parents represents a removal of all or part of their parental rights and responsibilities for the child. This report is offered from the perspective that such an intervention into family life is very significant indeed, and that all families who are affected in this way require and deserve timely support.

For the most part, the focus of the Supporting Roots project and report is the needs of birth parents. However, it is important to acknowledge the impact of family separation on wider family. In Scotland, the importance of children having ongoing relationships with their siblings, where assessed as appropriate and regardless of any permanent change to their care and home lives, has been increasingly well recognised in policy. Since July 2021, The significance of sibling relationships for care and permanence planning has long been embedded in domestic legislation, but changes made in 2021 re-emphasised this. The relationships of children to their siblings are considered within this report, however they are not the main focus. Further, the authors recognise that when a child is removed from their family of origin there can be significant impacts on grandparents, wider relatives, and friends. While some children may remain in their home communities, perhaps with kinship carers or local foster carers, other children may be placed far more remotely from their communities of origin. This can have significant impacts not only on children and young people themselves, but on the relatives, friends, and communities who have claimed them, and where children may have a strong sense of belonging and shared culture. The Supporting Roots project and the report that follows are informed by the principle that all children and young people growing up in Scotland have a right to safe, loving care and to a sense of belonging throughout their childhoods and beyond. When achieving that aim involves permanent family separation, the consequences for all involved are significant, and it is highly likely that support will be required. The primary aim of this project is to add to the existing evidence base that describes what meaningful support looks like in these circumstances, with a particular focus on the needs and views of birth parents in Scotland.

The first part of the report is a short evidence review of the literature on support for birth parents. Some key principles for practice are suggested, based on the existing evidence base. In recent years, a large volume of research has been published that seeks to describe and explore the needs of birth parents, particularly birth mothers. Part one of this report aims to distil some of the key messages from recent international research in the field, including evaluatory research that has sought to support the development of best practice in support for birth parents. The review is presented thematically and is based on a literature search which included research published in English from January 2012 and February 2021.

The second part of the report presents findings from a small-scale, in-depth, qualitative study. The aim of this study was to better understand birth families’ experiences in the Scottish legal and policy context. The research team put out an open call for birth family members from across Scotland to contribute to the research and fieldwork was completed between January and March 2022. Ten birth mothers came forward to take part in the research, and some were supported in doing so by practitioners working in relevant services, mainly in advocacy and support roles. The research used semi-structured, qualitative interviews in order to explore how the participants had experienced child welfare systems and practice in Scotland, including legal decision-making forums, since this was a gap in existing knowledge. We also sought to understand what support, if any, research participants had accessed in relation to their experiences, whatever the source. The findings of this research are presented in part 2 of the report, and although care must be taken in generalising from the small sample, some key messages for practice are offered on this basis of this study.

The third and final part of the report provides information on current practice and services that are designed to respond to the needs of birth family members across Scotland. In part 3 of the report, we identify key services that provide different models of specialist support. Our intention is to highlight examples of good practice, as well as possible networking and knowledge exchange opportunities between practitioners and services in Scotland. This part of the report also presents data from 12 professionals, who shared their perspective on what good support looks like, some ways in which this can be achieved, and what the barriers and facilitators are to providing timely, effective, and compassionate support to birth parents.

The overall aim of this report is to support practitioners, policy makers, and all relevant professionals to understand the needs of birth parents more fully and consider how their agency or setting can respond, based on available evidence. While the project has been targeted specifically to the Scottish context, the applicability of the key messages of the report goes beyond Scotland. We hope that the report may be of interest to colleagues in other national and international settings, who are working to improve the experiences of birth family members impacted by family separation. We hope that the report provokes dialogue, increases the visibility of the needs of birth parents, and supports ongoing work to provide more timely, far reaching, and comprehensive support to birth family members across Scotland.

Acknowledgements – The authors would like to thank all the participants in this report, particularly the birth mothers who took part in research interviews with Ariane and Mark and who shared their views and experiences with us. Your strength is remarkable, and we hope that some of you might choose to continue to support practice development in Scotland going forwards.

Thank you to all of the practitioners and managers who contributed to part 3 of the report, but who also supported part 2, by putting the research team in contact with birth parents and supporting the research interviews as well as providing information on services in your areas of Scotland. We are particularly grateful to the practitioners and managers who attended the practice group which supported this research and shared their experience, insights, and determination to improve practice in Scotland.

Thanks are due to Edinburgh Napier University, where Ariane was based at the outset of this project, and particularly to Sheena Moffat, now retired Subject Librarian in the School of Health and Social Care, for her contribution to the literature review. Thank you to the University of Stirling, who have allowed Ariane to complete work on this project since joining the Social Work division at the university and have been fully supportive of the project. Our colleagues at AFKA Scotland have provided a great deal of help and support over time, and thanks are due particularly to Robin Duncan and Angie Gillies who oversaw this work. Finally, we would like to thank the Scottish Government for the opportunity to undertake this project, with leadership and facilitation from Felicity Sung, Lorraine Harris and Sophie Rogers.



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