New research from UCL and published in the International Journal of Population Data Science (IJPDS), shows that 1 in 77 (1.3%) women who start a family are involved in a family court case where social services apply to place one or more of their children into state care.

A team of researchers led by Professor Ruth Gilbert, looked into the health and social factors that increase the risk of involvement in family court proceedings by creating a database that linked anonymised administrative family court records for mothers involved in care proceedings, to anonymised NHS England hospital records.

The research team embedded linked data for 38,000 mothers who were involved in care proceedings in a database of 3.6 million mothers who delivered a first child in English NHS units between 2007 and 2021. The dataset allowed groups of mothers to be followed from the start of parenthood to see how many of them would become involved in care proceedings – 1 in 77 mothers (1.3%) by the time their eldest child was 10 years old. They also found that the risk of being involved in care proceedings was highest for mothers whose first birth was before age 20, or who lived in a deprived neighbourhood, or in the North East of England.

Families involved in care proceedings face many intersecting problems, which in many cases include poor health, drug and alcohol problems and experience of domestic abuse. The long-term health and educational outcomes for children taken into care are also worse than their peers. Almost 10,000 mothers and around 15,000 children are involved in new family court care proceedings each year in England and the number of children being looked after by the state has increased by more than one-fifth (22%) in the last 10 years.

With better understanding of the health needs of mothers involved in care proceedings, policy makers and health services will be more able to use these results to intervene early at a first birth, to improve outcomes for vulnerable families.

First author Dr. Georgina Ireland commented that “In the future this database could be used to explore opportunities for healthcare services to reduce the need for children to be removed from the family home, and improve the health and wellbeing of mothers before and after care proceedings.”

Lisa Harker, Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, commented that “It is critical – for children, parents and wider society - that we prevent the need to remove so many children from their parents’ care.  This study takes us a step closer towards helping professionals who support families provide more effective preventative services.”


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Dr. Georgina Ireland, Research Fellow, Population, Policy and Practice Department, University College London

Ireland, G., Wijlaars, L., Jay, M., Feng, Q., Harron, K., Grant, C. and Gilbert, R. (2024) “Linkage of administrative family court care proceedings and hospital records for mothers in England: linkage accuracy and cumulative incidence of family court care proceedings after a first live birth ”, International Journal of Population Data Science, 9(2). doi: 10.23889/ijpds.v9i2.2404.