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.

Part 2: The Experiences and Views of Birth Parents

Ariane Critchley and Mark Hardy


The findings presented in this part of the report are based on interviews with birth parents from across Scotland, undertaken between January and March 2022. The Association for Fostering, Kinship and Adoption (AFKA) Scotland were funded by the Scottish Government to undertake this work to assist in the development of policy and practice in this area. The aim of this strand of the Supporting Roots project was to hear directly from families with experience of separation from a child or children through Scottish child welfare processes. The authors recruited participants through both targeted and open calls, and the only criteria for participation were experience of having lost the care of a child or children in the family through child welfare and protection processes in Scotland. Agencies working in this field were asked to invite people they were working with, or had worked with, who met these criteria.

The project aimed to better understand birth families’ experiences of the Scottish ‘care system’; a system which has been described as ‘complex, fragmented, multi-purpose and multifaceted’ (The Promise, 2020: 112). The research was also designed to discover what support participants had been able to access both before and after their child or children started being cared for beyond the immediate birth family. We were interested to know what, if anything, participants had found supportive and enabling around what are necessarily very difficult experiences. Therefore, the research interviews were targeted at these two main aims: to understand the experience of birth families who have had a child removed from their care in Scotland, and to hear from them about the support they had received around this experience, whether formal or informal.

Participants in this research shared very wide-ranging views and accounts with the researchers, and we are extremely grateful for their contributions to this report, which we hope captures the major themes of the research interviews. These themes are expected to be of interest and relevance to practitioners and managers in both statutory and third sector agencies, as well as to policy makers and educators in the field. In many ways, the findings presented here echo those from previous studies, which are summarised in Part 1 of this reporting: the short evidence review of existing research. However, this report builds on these themes by offering further indications towards improving the experience of birth parents and relatives, and better meeting their support and welfare needs pre- and post-separation.

Ethical Statement and Acknowledgements

This research was commissioned by the Scottish Government and completed by AFKA Scotland, with the support of agencies working in this field, including local authorities and third sector organisations, from all over Scotland. Ethical permission for the study was provided by the Board of AFKA Scotland and oversight of the project was provided by the organisation’s Director. The work of the first author was initially situated within Edinburgh Napier University, and we would like to thank colleagues in the School of Health and Social Care for their ethical oversight at the outset of the research phase of this project. Ms Sheena Moffat, librarian in the School, completed the literature search which underpinned the evidence review presented in part 1 of this report.

Once ethical approval had been granted by the Board of AFKA Scotland for the fieldwork, recruitment through agencies and social media was supported by an informational video covering suggested considerations for participants in deciding whether to take part. All participants were provided with written and verbal information about the study and were fully informed on how their data would be recorded and stored, and about their rights in relation to this. All participants provided written consent to participation. Participants were offered the opportunity to remain in contact to hear more about the research, including possible opportunities to support implementation of improved support in Scotland. Most have opted to keep in touch.


All successful recruitment to the study was achieved through agencies that were working with, or had worked in the past with, the research participants. The authors also put out a call through social media and word of mouth, particularly to try to include fathers in the project, however this did not succeed in recruiting any fathers. All of the birth relative participants in the research are birth mothers, and some are also grandmothers and aunts to other children who have been removed from the wider family. The ten birth mothers taking part in the study were aged between 28 and 52 at the time of the research interviews. Each participant had between one child and five children, and in total, the mothers had 27 children, all of whom they discussed in the interviews.

The research proceeded through semi-structured interviews, which were completed either in person or online, according to participant preference. Over the course of the fieldwork, national restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic and public feeling about in-person meetings gradually changed. All participants were given the opportunity to bring a friend, supporter or advocate to the interview and half of the women chose to do so. Two of the participants are sisters and were interviewed together, along with two professionals from the agency supporting them. One of the interviews was conducted in the presence of the participant’s youngest child, who was toddling around. Therefore, the formality and the length of the interviews varied, depending on the participant’s choice of setting, and the extent to which they wished to discuss their experiences. The presence of supporters was often helpful in reminding participants about aspects of their story that were relevant to the interview schedule. The schedule itself was flexible but focused on participants’ experiences of child welfare and protection processes in Scotland, including legal processes, and on the support they received before or after separation from their child or children.

The data from each interview was audio recorded by the interviewer and stored securely according to the ethics permissions provided by the Board of AFKA Scotland. The authors of the report took notes after each interview and on listening back to the recordings and discussed the key themes from each research encounter. The data was then analysed thematically (Braun and Clarke, 2021), to arrive at the themes presented below. All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the anonymity of participants in the research. At the point of interview, the women were given the opportunity to choose a pseudonym for themselves, which four of the mothers and one support worker did. All other participants were assigned pseudonyms by the researchers.

The Research Sample

The women who spoke to us for the purposes of this study had all demonstrated great courage, strength, and determination in overcoming significant difficulties and barriers in their lives. All participants had received some measure of support around separation from their children and the experience of living apart from them. The nature of that support varied greatly, as we will describe in the findings section. However, it is important to acknowledge that the mothers who make up this research sample may have received more support than the wider population of birth family members living in Scotland. This is not to claim the support that our participants had received was always sufficient or timely, but the women had all benefitted from some form of community based or formal support, and some had also experienced good informal support from their family, friends, or partners. All participants had been identified by professionals who worked with them as able to coherently tell their stories, which they did very articulately. Given the evidence of wider research that incorporates larger scale data about parents whose children are subject to care proceedings or removed from their care (Broadhurst et al., 2017; Cusworth et al., 2022; Johnson et al., 2021) we would suggest that in the wider population of birth parents and relatives, many people will have had less support, and potentially more adverse outcomes.

It had very much been hoped to include fathers in the study, and targeted recruitment was attempted with a view to achieving this. However, we were unsuccessful in including any men in the research, which is a clear limitation for this report. Based on the accompanying mapping exercise, and on the data collected through this research, one possible explanation for the difficulties in recruiting men to the study is that very few are in contact with services around the loss of their children. It appears that fathers are less likely to access, or be eligible for, formal support services. The lack of recognition of the welfare needs of fathers who have been subject to child protection processes in respect of their children has been reported on previously, based on data from fathers in England (Philip et al. 2018; 2020; 2021). It was very unfortunate not to be able to hear the voices of birth fathers within this project.

All of the research participants identified as being White Scottish/ White European. This is a limitation of the study and indicates a need for care in over-generalising from the findings. Birth parents and relatives from racially and culturally minoritised communities may require support that differs in important ways, due to the intersectional nature of the experience of losing a child or children through removal, with the additional challenges of experiencing minoritisation and discrimination at a societal and individual level. Two of the participants in the study identified as having a learning disability and there are some specific findings in relation to the needs of parents with learning disabilities included within this report.

Five Key Messages for Practice

1. Professional Practice and Values

Participants in this research clearly articulated the importance of compassionate, professional practice to their own well-being in the short and long term, but also for their children. Mothers who felt respected and included in child protection and care proceedings, and in permanence decisions for their children, were better able to come to terms with these and to support their children’s welfare and identity through positive ‘contact’ arrangements. Changes of worker made this more difficult and there was a clear practice and policy message in terms of retention of skilled professionals, particularly social workers, who are able to carry the child’s story and retain positive working relationships with families. For parents with learning disabilities, frequent changes in worker and in communication style were particularly challenging to navigate. Professionals who were reliable and gave mothers their place in their children’s lives were highly valued.

2. Social Isolation

Social isolation was a major issue for all the birth mothers, at different stages of their journeys. For some women, it was a significant factor in the assessment of their capacity to care for their children, with mothers acknowledging their limited support network was problematic. For other women, the placement of their child or children in a kinship setting served to isolate them from their own families, with family or community-based events being sites of potential unplanned ‘contact’ with their children. For practitioners, thinking about the ‘collateral consequences’ (Broadhurst and Mason, 2017) of alternative care arrangements for children in terms of wider family relationships and the kin support available to birth parents could make a real difference. Relatedly, for women who had grown up in ‘care’, the fractured nature of their relationship to family was a problem when they had their own children, indicating a need for targeted support for parents with care experience. Finally, in line with previous research, the participants in this study felt that the experience of losing care of a child or children had further isolated them from their family, friends, and community. Mothers who had been able to access peer support had benefitted significantly from this and were also motivated to support other parents in their position.

3. Parental Mental Health Needs

A significant gap in mental health care and support was identified by some mothers contributing to this research. For three of the women, despite severe mental health difficulties being acknowledged by professionals, they were offered no care or support at the point of their children’s removal, precipitating a period of serious mental health crisis. Two further women participating reported reactive depression and thoughts of self-harm post-removal, for which limited crisis support and medication was provided. One mother was well supported through child welfare and permanence processes, so that despite a severe and enduring mental health diagnosis she was able to stay relatively well. Notably, of those women whose mental health was poorly managed and responded to at the point of separation from their children, they had later made strong recoveries with the help of health care, therapeutic interventions, and community-based support. This is important, firstly because of the known risks of suicidal behaviour for mothers post-separation (Wall-Wieler et al., 2018). Secondly, the women affected were all in contact with their children and contributing to their lives and care in significant ways. Given the risks of poor outcomes and the evidence of potential for recovery, ensuring that birth parents receive the health care and support required with their mental health should be a key priority in practice.

4. Advocacy and Legal Representation

Acknowledging that this is a small-scale study, there were some concerning findings around the availability of trained and consistent advocacy and legal representation for birth mothers. Further research is indicated to better understand the extent to which this is a wider issue for birth mothers and also birth fathers in Scotland. In terms of practice, it cannot be assumed that birth parents have access to adequate legal advice or support to understand the complexities of the care proceedings in relation to their children. Beyond encouraging birth family members to secure sufficient legal representation, a need for clear and accessible communication with parents is indicated by this research. There was evidence from the birth mothers with learning disabilities who participated that they had not been sufficiently supported to understand and contribute to assessment, decision making, and legal processes. Mothers who did not have any form of intellectual disability also reported confusion around child welfare processes, and steps in separation from their children that they were not fully prepared for by professionals. For those mothers who had been able to work with advocacy services, this was highly valued. We were fortunate to include advocacy and support workers in three of the research interviews, providing rich data on the significance of these relationships in the women’s lives and to their well-being.

5. Support for Birth Parents is Valuable

Echoing previous evidence-based and theoretical contributions in this field (Cf. Alder, 2019; Bowyer et al., 2020; Cox et al., 2020; Morgan et al., 2019; Welch et al. 2015), participants in this project found the support they received in relation to their experiences as birth mothers living apart from their children crucial. The courage and resilience of the women who were interviewed for this report was one of the most notable aspects of undertaking the research. Their contributions speak to the capacity for recovery, change, and growth through both formal and informal supports. Although most participants had received non-specialised support, and for all the women the formal support they were able to access was limited, they had made very good use of this. Many of the women spoke of remaining strong for their children. This is a positive message for practice and for policy since the findings from this study indicate the potential benefits to both birth parents and children from providing support at key stages. The point of removal of children and the stage of registration for permanence were identified by participants as moments of crisis when they would have particularly benefitted from support. Despite the highly charged nature of separation from children, for mothers who had good relationships with the professionals involved at these stages, this was very important to them. For others, who had accessed support later, this was described as essential to their well-being, with faith groups, partners, and family members playing significant support roles alongside third sector organisations, local authority provision, and healthcare services. Having greater access to reliable, long-term, non-judgemental support was absolutely key in terms of the outcomes for many of the women, and extensions to the current provision across Scotland are to be welcomed.


1. Social Isolation

All the research participants reported experiencing some degree of social isolation. This was experienced by many as having been a critical factor in losing the care of their child or children permanently. For those who had gone on to find support later, some felt that this could have helped them to retain care of their children, if it had been in place at the time. As one participant, Deborah put it,

“If I had my time over again, I would definitely, if my family situation was better back then, there would be no questions, but again I had no support, I was on my own, my situation was not in a good place, adoption was the only good option”

(Extract from research interview with Deborah, mother of two children).

Isolation was often exacerbated by the removal of a child, with feelings of shame, stigma and distrust preventing women from reaching out for support for friends and family. Some participants described how close friends or family members had distanced themselves. Many of the women felt that what would have helped most at this time was talking to somebody who had been through the same experience, feeling this might have created hope and made a difference.

“Nobody, unless they’ve been through that process, can genuinely understand how you feel. They can be sympathetic, but they can’t be empathetic. And they can’t give advice on how to navigate through things”

(Extract from research interview with Clary, mother of three children).

When mothers later met other parents who shared their experience of separation from children, they found this reparative, but would still have liked that support earlier when there was still a possibility of influencing decisions about their children’s care. Several of the women were keen to offer this support to others in future and felt that peer support could be an important form of intervention for birth parents and relatives.

An under-recognised aspect of social isolation for birth parents is the way that the expectations of children’s plans, or the care arrangements for children, can serve to further isolate parents from immediate family. Sonya described how she had tried to distance herself from her family of origin after having her daughter, due to the risk they represented.

“I never had anyone. I’ve never really had a good relationship with my Mum… and my Stepdad wasn’t the nicest of people. So yeah, I just felt very alone and isolated because the family’s chaotic and… it’s not the sort of people I would have wanted around my daughter anyway. So yeah, I felt very alone at that point.”

(Extract from research interview with Sonya, mother of one child).

Two of the participants in the study explained that their child or children being in a kinship care arrangement distanced them from their own family members. This could be due to being excluded from family events or celebrations to avoid unplanned contact with their child, or due to the strain that kinship care placed on relationships in the family. The eldest of Clary’s three children was in a foster care arrangement within the local community and attended primary school alongside cousins. Clary described how she had to refuse her nieces’ and nephews’ invitations to school shows or events as she was not allowed to go to the school her daughter attended. In practice, giving some thought to how plans for children may impact on parents’ own relationships and supports might have reduced the social isolation experienced by the women.

Other participants described how their own early experiences of child welfare involvement and ‘care’ had left them unsupported when it came to having their own children. Charlotte explained how she had grown up in foster care, with no knowledge of or contact with her birth family, including her five siblings. Having never felt accepted by her foster mother, Charlotte described being left very much alone in the world in her late teens, with no family network or identity. She went on to have three children, all of whom entered alternative care at different stages of their childhoods and felt that the lack of family support around her was a factor in this.

2. Professional Practice and Values

Given the levels of isolation reported by participants, it is unsurprising that the nature of the working relationships they had with professionals was significant in their accounts. This was particularly in relation to statutory social workers, whose job it was to assess the needs of their children, to consider risks in the family, and to lead on plans for support or alternative care. How the mothers experienced treatment by workers in this position had long-lasting and far-ranging consequences for them, and for their children. Isabella, who had emigrated from another European country alone after having three older children, had experienced a long and very difficult process of separation from her youngest child, who was born in Scotland. Her son was eventually adopted by a couple, who have been open to contact and supportive of Isabella. Despite the pain and difficulty of her story, Isabella had a good working relationship with the child welfare team and felt this had been hugely important to her and to the outcome for her son.

“What they were actually doing, they had their best interests actually for the child in all, and… so it wasn’t like ‘we want to take your child away and nothing else to do with you, he’s ours now’, not at all, in my case that was not the case at all. It was literally they were trying to make everyone, how can we make this the best for everyone, mostly important for the child, and then also keep me in his life and kind of find a family the best suited for a child. Probably some other places and countries and social work departments don’t maybe care that much but specifically this one was really, really forthcoming, and really felt it, got in with, like the heart in there, not with just purely professional, just like you know cut and dusted, that’s it done. So, it was really, really made sure that the child got the best place possible for him and I don’t know to be honest who was listening, but they find him the best possible family, it’s like you can’t ask anything better”

(Extract from research interview with Isabella, mother of four children).

Having continuity of social worker had been very important for Isabella, and she described how, despite periods of disagreement and conflict, her child’s social worker had continued to take a warm and genuine approach to her family. Isabella also enjoyed a good working relationship with her child’s nursery, who supported her around the ‘contact’ arrangements once her son was living apart from her. These positive working relationships, and Isabella’s sense of being valued and respected as a person and a mother, appeared to have made her experience bearable, and allowed her to follow the advice of professionals and to sustain an ongoing relationship with her son, to both their benefit.

Other participants described less positive relationships with child welfare professionals. Concerns including lack of continuity of workers, frequent changes of foster care placements, and the attitudes and behaviour of practitioners towards the family. Participants who had experienced multiple changes of social worker during the period of working with child welfare professionals found this particularly difficult.

“Every time you get a new social worker you need to literally go through your whole story again”

(Extract from research interview with Kimberley, mother of three children and Rose, mother of one child).

“I think having one social worker throughout that time would have been better cos then that way I’m not having to meet new ones and kinda having to get to know them and them getting to know me cos if I start to get to know them and then they change then I’ve kinda got to relay the story again to somebody else and it was frustrating that there were so many different ones in a short period of time and I still to this day don’t know why there was so many different ones”

(Extract from research interview with Sonya, mother of one child).

Mothers were deeply concerned about the impact of changes of worker on their children. Lizzie described how her children, three of whom are currently growing up in alternative care arrangements including foster care and residential care, ‘hate social workers’ as they have had so many changes of worker and care placement.

“It takes time for social work to get to ken [know] you, and your family, and stuff, but it doesnae [doesn’t] help when there’s constant people coming in and out all the time”

(Extract from research interview with Lizzie, mother of five children).

Telling very painful stories again and again to workers, including histories of their own childhood trauma and abuse, was understandably difficult for mothers. Frequent changes in the team around their child or children could be confusing for families, and for parents with learning disabilities it was particularly challenging to keep up with the renewed flow of information sharing that each change of worker generated.

“My son has had about 10 different social workers in 8 years. And each of them has said this and that, but it doesnae go on to the next social worker. You're having to explain yourself and then you're not getting that thing that the last social worker said you could get… Empty promises I would say”

(Extract from research interview with Charlotte, mother of three children).

The quality of working relationships with professionals was also very significant to participants. Clary described feeling judged and disrespected by professionals, and as if she herself was of little significance.

“The social workers made it very clear that they were only there for the children, that I wasn’t their responsibility at all”

(Extract from research interview with Clary, mother of three children).

Clary’s mental health was so badly affected by the child protection involvement in her family and the lengthy assessment of her parenting capacity, that she was compulsorily detained under the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 at the end of the child welfare process. She reported being offered no mental health support through this involvement, and her mental health seriously deteriorated due to the judgement she experienced from social work professionals, and her sense of fighting the inaccuracies she perceived in their reports.

Considering the data about professional working relationships as a whole, it is clear that participants were looking for a basic level of care, respect, competence, and acknowledgement of their role as mothers. This finding is very much supported by previous research (Cf. Bengtsson and Karmsteen, 2020; Honey et al., 2019; Lewis and Brady, 2018). Yet not all the women participating in the study had experienced this. Some described confusing, cruel, and hurtful encounters with professionals. The impact of poor practice can be significant and long-lasting for birth mothers and may exacerbate existing mental health difficulties. Most participants in the research described challenges around their mental health, and we provide some comment on this in the following section of the report.

Mental Health

Of the ten mothers interviewed for the study, four described significant mental health problems made worse by their experience of child welfare and protection processes, and by separation from their children. One further mother, Rose, described very frightening and intrusive thoughts, and difficulty in leaving the house when her son was younger. However, she did not describe these experiences in terms of mental health difficulties and had not told professionals about these at the time, for fear of judgement. Rose described suicidal thoughts, and having had specific support around this, but she had not had the benefit of any longer-term therapeutic intervention or care and was at the time of interview still processing much of what had happened to her family. Stephanie also reported having experienced reactive depression at the point of her daughter’s removal, but not any ongoing mental health problems or diagnosis.

For three of the women, their mental health was known to be extremely poor at the point of their children’s separation from them, yet they received little or no support to address this, or any help in getting access to appropriate healthcare. Lizzie described how her mental health had deteriorated over time, but despite repeated attempts to gain help, she was not able to access any mental health services. As a result, her children were accommodated, after she told her children’s school about her situation. She described how this process was managed.

“The police came, removed the kids and basically, I was left like… they just took my kids and left. That was it. A citation got put through the door saying that they had, I was to read it, put a court thing on it so I would remember. So, I laid on the stairs for three days, like crying, cos they took my kids away from me and I thought they were maybe going to come back but once I read the thing, I thought they’re not coming back anytime soon. I had absolutely no support or nothing. As I say. I sat there for three days crying my eyes out, saying where’s my kids?”

(Extract from research interview with Lizzie, mother of five children).

Charlotte and Clary described equally poorly managed separations from their children, with no support for their acknowledged mental health difficulties offered to them at that time. Stephanie was prescribed anti-depressants around the time her daughter was removed from her care but was not offered any other support at that time. Isabella’s story was different in that she was well supported by services, including having a therapist throughout the process. This helped her to accept the decision that her child be adopted, and over time allowed her to help with that process and offer a safe, supported, ongoing relationship with her son and his adoptive family.

“I don’t know, it is better probably to have broken legs and arms, you know, than have a broken brain, and do you know what it does to me, I don’t want my children to have that at all, so I was fully onboard in time, I think all the way through I kind of knew, right this is about him now, I have to do what I have to do, I have to, yes I had my moments and I had fallouts with social worker and stuff but you personally… if it’s a good social worker they truly care what they’re doing. The department, the nursery, the people who are all involved really, they do care. It’s not like they don’t care at all. You wouldn’t be able to do that job if you wouldn’t care. So, it’s just… I’m very lucky”

(Extract from research interview with Isabella, mother of four children).

The recoveries that the women described making since these painful times in their lives were remarkable. All had gone on to access support of different types, which included in-patient and out-patient mental health treatment, medication, person-centred counselling, therapy, peer support, and active involvement in faith or community-based groups. One of the participants had the benefit of specific support service for birth mothers, although this was time-limited which significantly impacted on the value of the service for her. Only one of the four women with ongoing mental health difficulties, Isabella, felt that her mental health condition was so serious that it was not possible for her to care safely for her child, no matter how motivated she was to do so. The remaining three women who reported long-term mental health problems and diagnoses felt that with sufficient support and care at the right time, they could have safely brought up their children at home. The proportion of women in our sample who described experiencing mental health problems was slightly smaller than the proportion reflected in the Born into Care in Scotland report, which stated that mental health concerns were recorded in relation to 70% mothers of infants looked after away from home included in their aggregate data set (Cusworth et al., 2022: 19). What our interviews with women add to this finding is detail around how difficult it was for the mothers to access the mental health care and support they needed in a timely way, and how this impacted on their families. As Honey et al. (2019) have highlighted living well with mental illness and post-separation from children represents a significant challenge.

It is important to note that all four of the mothers with mental health diagnoses who participated in the study have ongoing or renewed contact with one or more of their children, and two of the women are caring for at least one child. Therefore, their mental health recoveries have been vital not only to their lives and well-being, but to that of their children. As Wall-Wieler et al.’s (2018) work demonstrates, the outcomes for birth mothers post-removal can include suicidal actions and death by suicide. The importance of timely and appropriate care, and the support to access mental health services, cannot be over-stated for this population of parents. For the mothers we interviewed, better mental health and management of their conditions was possible, as was a positive role in their children’s lives and for some the safe care of children, yet for three of the women the mental health support required to achieve this was lacking at the crucial point of family separation.

3. Parents with Learning Disabilities

We were fortunate to include two mothers in the research who have learning disabilities and were willing to share both their experiences and their views. Deborah and Charlotte were interviewed separately for the study, but on each occasion were supported by Florence, who is involved in facilitating a parents’ group which both women are part of, and which both supports and campaigns for parents with learning disabilities in Scotland. Charlotte and Deborah’s stories are very different, but there were some common messages in their accounts, which are highly relevant for practice. Charlotte and Deborah described how they had benefitted from being part of a peer-support group, and how important the work they do to educate and inform on the needs of parents with learning disabilities is in terms of their own well-being. There was a strong sense in both interviews of how reparative it was for the women to be able to join with others to work for change in the systems that they had navigated in relation to their own families.

Charlotte’s story is one of inter-generational loss and experience of ‘care’, as she grew up in foster care, separated from her birth parents and five siblings, then left her foster mother’s home in her late teens with no support or aftercare in place. She went on to have three children, and successfully raised her older two children into primary school, before becoming involved in a new relationship. This was exploitative and harmed her mental health significantly. Suffering from undiagnosed post-natal depression after the birth of her third child, life began to unravel, and Charlotte eventually lost the care of all three of her children. Painfully for Charlotte, her daughter Emma later lost the care of her own son, Anthony, soon after his birth, causing ongoing difficulties for relationships between the family. Emma blames Charlotte as her family history contributed to the assessment that she could not safely care for Anthony. This is particularly difficult for Charlotte as even now; she does not feel she has a full understanding of her own records and the story that has been told about her life in these.

Key points of improvement for practice that Charlotte raised were around communication, respect, and continuity of social worker. Despite her significant difficulties with communication, Charlotte only sometimes had an advocate beside her at ‘big meetings’ when decisions were made about the care of her children. There was no consistency in advocacy support throughout her very difficult process of family separation, during which Charlotte was suffering from mental health difficulties: she described feeling ‘disoriented’ and confused by meetings and being unable to understand reports.

“It would have been easier if they could have spoke it in a better way, and explained what they were doing, instead of using the jargon words that they used. I used to come out a meeting and I was like "where am I?" It's just about being judged and about… with social workers it's like they dinnae [don’t] listen and they dinnae pay attention to what you're sayin', you're just talking to yourself”

(Extract from research interview with Charlotte, mother of three children).

Although she was able to appoint a solicitor when permanence decisions were being made for the children, Charlotte felt the solicitor was not on her side, leaving her very vulnerable within legal processes. In interview, Charlotte described being asked to sign legal documents which she was unable to read and understand. This history of confused and fractured contact with services has made sustaining her family life and her mental health a day-to-day challenge for Charlotte. The parents’ group she is now an active part of has been helpful in this. However, Charlotte felt that reparative mediation work that involved her and her now adult and almost-adult children, and that might help them to form a coherent narrative of their experiences as a family, would be of benefit to her at this stage in her life.

In contrast, Deborah had felt well supported and cared for during the child welfare processes which led to the adoption of her second child. Deborah was herself adopted as a child and had a positive childhood and enjoyed the support of her parents into adulthood. She was able to care for her first child as a result of this family support. However, when she became pregnant to a new partner later in life, that support was no longer available and social workers suggested that her second baby should be adopted. Deborah’s own positive experience of adoption contributed to her acceptance of this plan, suggesting that ‘adoption isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be, it could be a good thing’.

Many of the concerns around Deborah’s baby’s safety were in fact related to the father’s history of having hurt a child previously, and the ways he had hurt Deborah herself. Yet, this information was not clear to Deborah at the time of having her child, and she had understood that the reasons for the adoption of her baby were related to her own learning disability. Deborah had wanted the opportunity to be a mother and care for her child and holds the view that with the right support and advocacy her story could have turned out differently. However, Deborah also reported she had felt respected and supported by the social worker for her child, and was able to meet the adoptive mother, consent to the adoption, and be part of ongoing ‘letterbox contact’ as a result of this.

“Interviewer: What are those times of year like for you then, when you’re writing those letters or getting those letters? Do you get excited or anxious?”

Deborah: “Full of excitement and joy.”

(Extract from research interview with Deborah, mother of two children).

Therefore, again there was a clear message around good practice and values in child welfare and protection practice being crucial to individual and family outcomes. Both the women, and their worker Florence, emphasised that creating open, honest, and clear communication channels with parents with learning disabilities required time, skill and thought from practitioners. Considering the divergent experiences of Charlotte and Deborah, it is clear that taking the necessary time and care to work respectfully with parents could make all the difference to long-term and tangible outcomes for families.

4. Legal Processes, Representation and Advocacy

In terms of the Scottish legal system, some of the women identified had felt significant benefit from advocacy support, particularly within the Children’s Hearing System. Lucy was interviewed along with Anne, who was her advocacy worker from early on in the local authority involvement with her children. Anne commented that the sheer number of meetings that take place in relation to their children can be confusing for parents. Anne had supported Lucy to put her views across in meetings and Children’s Hearings, although both women felt that ultimately it was difficult to challenge the social work assessment of Lucy’s capacity to care for her children. Lucy reported that although many parents are unaware of the possibility of submitting written views prior to a Hearing taking place, Anne had helped her to do this, and feedback from Children’s Panel members was that this had helped them to absorb the information in advance.

Children’s Hearings were experienced as being stressful by participants in the study. Lizzie found it difficult that Panel members change with each Hearing convened. Whereas one Panel member had given her hope in relation to caring for her daughter when it came to the next Panel, she felt they had made their decision already and she was surprised to find plans moving in a different direction, despite her own situation having improved. Some of the mothers interviewed had found it difficult to secure reliable, skilled, legal support in relation to the legal proceedings that ultimately separated them from their children. Clary had found it difficult to find a solicitor who would represent her in legal proceedings and felt that having a list of local solicitors who understand this area of work would have been helpful. She described the Court experience as ‘being ripped to shreds for two days’ whilst professionals gave testimony one after the other. Lizzie also found that reliable legal support was difficult to find, and had two solicitors, ‘who came, and they went’, but did not materially help to change the outcomes in relation to her children. Given that Lizzie described some very complex proceedings in relation to her family, a need for adequate legal support appeared clear, yet this was difficult to secure. Kimberley described having a solicitor who ‘disappeared off the face of the earth’ and became uncontactable.

Although she had legal representation within Court processes, Sonya remained confused by what the legal processes had in fact been in relation to the adoption of her daughter.

“I still don’t know if I ever went to a Children’s Hearing. I know she was on the Child Protection Register but there was never really any meetings after that with me. I got a visit from a social worker who says the plan was they were going to put [Sonya’s daughter] up for adoption, they thought it was the best thing for her. So, after that final meeting… I never went to any after that… [there was a] plea deal sort of thing if I gave up trying to get her back then I was guaranteed to see her until she was adopted and then letterbox contact. They were pushing for that”

(Extract from research interview with Sonya, mother of one child).

There was a lack of clarity for many of the women around the legal steps and decisions that were taken in relation to their children, and how these were arrived at, even when they were ultimately accepting of the outcome.

“I think I knew from the start it was never going to go my way, you know. So, when they gave the deal, it was still a hard decision to make, but I knew deep down it was the right thing to do for her”

(Extract from research interview with Sonya, mother of one child).

Both Sonya and Lizzie described their major supports in the permanence and Court processes as being their partners, rather than any of the professionals involved, or their legal representatives. Both still had strong relationships with the men who had been through these processes with them at the point of interview and experienced these relationships as very significant in terms of how they had coped and begun to recover.

Although the data around the Scottish legal system is limited, and the small sample size means that caution is needed, for professionals working with families, it cannot be assumed that parents are able to access adequate legal and advocacy support in relation to legal proceedings. Therefore, checking out with birth parents what they have in place, and what they might need would seem important, in order to ensure understanding of the legal steps being taken, and proper advice regarding these. Mothers who had only accessed reliable advocacy support later in life, including Charlotte and Deborah who both have learning disabilities, wondered whether this could have helped them at the time their children were removed from their care, when hugely significant processes and decisions were taking place. A need for further research into the accessibility of specialist legal support and representation in Scotland is suggested by the data arising from our small-scale study.

5. Timing of Support

There was a clear indication from the mothers taking part in this research that support needed to be offered at the point of registration of a child or children for ‘permanence’, the stage at which it becomes clear that reunification of the family is no longer the plan. This was the stage at which the group Kimberley and Rose were part of reached out routinely to birth parents in their area, with follow-up every few months to ‘check in’, which was found to be a very helpful model. Parents were particularly vulnerable at the point of permanence registration, not least because their entitlement to housing and benefits support may be affected at this point, causing mothers to feel they were losing everything.

“When you hear the permanence, you don’t want to hear that, because you know that’s the end”

(Extract from research interview with Isabella, mother of four children).

Lizzie had a clear plan for her own suicide at this stage of the process and felt she had carried on living only because of the support of her partner at that time and her commitment to her children.

“What they did to me was horrendous. There was nothing, absolutely nothing.”

(Extract from research interview with Lizzie, mother of five children).

Isabella also found the huge changes in the support available to her at this stage difficult, as of all the women interviewed, she had enjoyed the best relationship with the child welfare professionals, who were involved with her youngest child.

“I wish I could have kept some people from when the process was going on, nursery at times keeping in touch, you’re not allowed to do that, it’s professional, so you have to kind of keep the professional, professional, so yeah, that’s the downside really, and it gets cut off and you don’t really have anything”

(Extract from research interview with Isabella, mother of four children).

Although Isabella had gone on to receive specialist after adoption support, the wait for this was difficult and the support was time-limited, which she found unhelpful. There was a clear message from the birth mothers who took part in the study that support needed to be open-ended, sustained, and reliable, and that gaps in support or changes in their eligibility for support as a result of the changes of their children’s status in the system were very difficult to navigate. The withdrawal of agencies and entitlements at the stage at which mothers were coming to terms with the loss of their child or children could be especially difficult and de-stabilising, with women reporting an understandable crisis in their mental health at this point.

6. Keeping in Contact and Saying Goodbye

For the women interviewed, their direct contact with their children once they were living apart from them was a mixed experience. Isabella had the most positive experience of this, finding her child’s social worker and the nursery setting where the contact took place highly supportive of her and encouraging of a sustained connection. She felt this had allowed her to manage her own difficult experiences of being with and then being separated from her child each time, and to make this a positive time for them both while they were together.

Stephanie and Clary reported much more negative experiences of supervised ‘contact’ or family time with their children and felt judged by the supervising workers.

“When you’re in that frame of mind you just feel like everybody’s watching you, every move you make, y’know what I mean? So, it kind of puts you on edge, dya’know what I mean?... And I’m probably an anxious person anyway, one thing would come up, I’d be making her tea, she loves stovies, and I was making her stovies and I couldn’t get the can of stovies open or nothing, and I was like that [demonstrates her hand shaking] pure shaking. She must have been like, what’s the matter with her? But when someone’s watching you, you seem to make more kinda mistakes”

(Extract from research interview with Stephanie, mother of one child).

Clary had a particularly difficult period of contact arrangements, at the end of which her children were permanently removed from her care and were separated from one another. Yet, Clary was not given the opportunity to explain this to her children, or to say goodbye to them. Clary reported that on the last occasion seeing her daughter, she did not know that it would be the final visit until she attended that day. Clary remembers being advised not to show any emotion and not to say goodbye. She had no arrangements for support after the visit and had to get the train home alone, having seen her daughter for the last time.

“That’s what hurts the most in this entire thing. I wasn’t given the chance to say goodbye. No parent should ever be told that they cannot say goodbye to their child and explain, because I feel that sometimes my children will think I have abandoned them”

(Extract from research interview with Clary, mother of three children).

The birth mothers who spoke to us were overwhelmingly positive about any contact arrangements available to them post-separation, describing these ongoing connections to their children in very warm terms. Talking about ‘letterbox’ or ‘indirect contact’, most women had found there was an art to learning how to write to their children, and around managing their expectations about communication in return, as adopters did not always provide the updates that they had agreed to at the point of the Adoption Order.

“There was a major learning curve because there’s no set formula, there’s no set advice as to what you need to put in the letters and you just have to kind of guess at the end of the day, and hope that you’re doing the right thing”

(Extract from research interview with Clary, mother of three children).

Mothers appreciated support in getting used to this new form of communication, with Kimberley explaining how one of the workers running their support group had helped her with what she could include in her letters to her son. ‘Letterbox contact’ provided hope for the mothers, and a sense that they still had a place in their children’s lives and stories.

“Don’t give up because even though you’re not seeing your child, if you’re having letterbox contact it’s nice because you’re getting to know what your child’s been up to and you’re still a part of their life in some way, so yeah, just thinking positive”

(Extract from research interview with Sonya, mother of one child).

Mothers, including Isabella and Stephanie, who had direct ongoing contact with their child or children appreciated this, even though managing their emotions around this was challenging at times. Lizzie also enjoyed the time each month she has individually with the four of her five children living apart from her but felt the responsibility for keeping the connections between her children, who are all growing up apart, lay with her rather than with the numerous different agencies supporting her children. Both Charlotte and Clary were at the time of their interviews caring for children who had spent most of their childhoods in alternative care arrangements and had recently chosen to live full or part time with their mothers. These transitional arrangements were endorsed by the teams around their young people, who recognised that they wanted to return to their families of origin. However, in their separate research interviews, both Charlotte and Clary described the significant challenge of learning new skills as mothers of teenaged children, at the same time as coming to terms with the long period of family separation and managing the complex dynamics with other children. The women both reported that there was little formal support available to their families. Clary in particular worried that she was not fully prepared to parent a teenager, even though she wanted to do so, after so many years of living apart. Clary worried that she was largely relying on parenting techniques she could remember from much earlier in her children’s lives.

Given Clary and Charlotte’s experiences, and Lizzie’s very active role in her children’s lives, it is important to acknowledge that there is always a possibility that young people will return to their birth families as young adults, regardless of the permanent alternative care arrangements that may have been put in place much earlier in their childhoods. Placements may break down and these particular mothers reported being asked to be part of complex care plans for their young people that included part-time or full-time residence with them as their children became young adults. Although they were very pleased to have more time with their young people and looked forward to this increasing further as they exited the ‘care’ system, the support available to the families appeared very limited. These experiences also raise questions about how sustainable ongoing ‘contact’ with birth parents and siblings is best achieved once plans for children to grow up outside of their immediate family’s care have been put in place. There is a question raised by the data here, around how agencies and carers can support and nourish the lifelong relationship to birth family that children have in different ways, as children grow up and as birth parents potentially make significant changes in their own lives that make time together safer and potentially more positive.


The decision to separate children from their family of origin has major implications for all members of the birth family. All of the birth mothers who took part in this study were experiencing ongoing impacts of separation from their children, whether this had occurred months, years or even over a decade ago. Although this is a small sample, and caution is needed in generalising as a result, this finding is consistent with the existing literature, which describes the long-lasting grief, loss and stigma that characterises the experience of birth mothers living apart from their children (Cf. Geddes, 2022; Morriss, 2018). Although all of the women interviewed had sustained great loss as mothers, not all their experiences were equally traumatic, with poor planning, confused communication, and a lack of compassion towards their own needs making an already life changing experience worse for some of the mothers. Whilst other women had felt that the support and understanding they and their families had received from professionals had mitigated against the pain of the experience of losing the care of their children.

The major aspects that women reported having made a positive difference to their experience were compassionate and skilled practitioners who acknowledged their place in their children’s lives, continuity of professionals, peer support from people who had similar experiences, and for many of the women, access to health services that allowed them to address significant and enduring mental health difficulties. There was a need for clearer communication from practitioners indicated by many of the participants in this study, including those mothers with diagnosed learning disabilities, although other women too had found child welfare processes to be overwhelming and confusing. A concerning scarcity of solicitors with the capacity to advise and represent birth parents in legal proceedings was reported by mothers, with even those women who were able to instruct a solicitor with expertise in the field subsequently then finding they were difficult to contact, or that they had to change legal representatives. This is an area where more research may be needed in order to better understand the factors that may be contributing to the difficulties in instructing a solicitor in permanence proceedings in relation to children in Scotland.

This study set out to better appreciate the kinds of support that birth parents valued following separation from their children. To some extent it was possible to meet this aim. However, the researchers would ideally have included birth fathers and other male relatives in the sample, and their missing perspective is a clear gap in the findings. The women we interviewed talked about the men in their lives who were important to them, particularly long-term partners, and friends, who had been the major source of support for two of the mothers interviewed. However, the experience and views of birth fathers are absent from this report.

The birth mothers, and the women supporting them, who generously participated in the study told us about what was important to them. They emphasised the ways they would have wanted to be treated by professionals both before and after separation from their children, and the importance of independent advocacy and support. Less than half of the participants had benefitted from specialist support for birth mothers, broadly reflecting the national lack of services designed to meet the needs of birth parents in Scotland post-separation (see part 3 of this report). The women had otherwise accessed mainstream health and social care services, generally through their own efforts, or had been helped in their recovery by community supports, including faith-based groups.


Through this phase of Scottish Government funded work, we aimed to better understand the experiences of birth family members who are separated from their children in Scotland. Although the research sample was not as diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity as hoped, we heard from women from across Scotland, living in both rural and urban areas, who between them had experience of child welfare and protection processes over a long period. Broadly, the findings of the study reflect the major themes of the existing literature, as presented in part 1 of this report. Women described the significant difficulties that they had experienced both pre and post separation from their children, and the crisis that permanence planning and saying goodbye to their children created in their lives. All participants had valued the support that they had accessed, whether this was specialist or was part of more generic or universal services, or community supports. Many of the women had also valued the support of partners or close friends and family, although for others separation from their children had created greater social isolation for them.

The findings of this phase of the research also reflect the description of services in Scotland to be found in part 3 of this reporting. Specialist services for birth parents were not available in all of the geographical areas where the women were based. When they were available, they were often experienced as too little, too late and many of the women expressed a wish for longer-term, flexible support that incorporated peer-support elements from other people who shared the difficult experience of living apart from a child or children. All of the participants in the study emphasised the importance of respectful, compassionate, and reliable support from social workers for their children. Notably, those women who had a good working relationship with the team around their child or children, appeared much more likely to be able to manage ‘contact’ positively and to make an ongoing contribution to their children’s lives, which had implications for their well-being, but also that of their children.

An unanticipated finding of the research was the difficulty women had experienced in instructing a skilled and reliable solicitor in child welfare proceedings. Many had found the legal processes around their children’s care confusing, and some remained unsure years later how the legal matters had been settled. A need for further research into the landscape of legal support for complex child welfare proceedings is indicated by this small-scale study. It would be positive to include birth fathers in future research of this nature, to better understand how possible it is for men to participate fully in legal and decision-making processes for their children.

It is hoped that this report will support the ongoing development of support services for birth families in Scotland and also act as an aid to practice and policy, in that the findings broadly reflect the existing literature and also pose some particular questions in relation to the Scottish legal and policy context, and how this is navigated by birth parents. The participants in the study made clear how important the responses, care and support they received was for them in both the short and the long term, and how this impacted on the relationships they were able to have with their children, and on the dynamics within their families. Practitioners working with this population can be confident that evidence based, and compassionate services can make a significant difference in the lives of families.



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