Local authority intervention leads to increased trauma scores in parents, according to research approved by St. Mary’s University in London.

The research, titled, ““How does the experience of going to court affect the  relationship between doctors and parents making best  interests decisions on behalf of children?” was produced by Nicola Adolphe as part of her Masters in Bioethics and Medical Law, at the university.

The research looked at the levels of trauma experienced by parents in two key categories: local authority intervention, and domestic abuse. Adolphe interviewed 25 parents for her research, 13 of whom were victims of domestic abuse.

The research found that in the domestic abuse group, the average ‘trauma score’ was 53, a figure consistent with a ‘severe’ post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rating.

However in the LA intervention group the average score was nearly 61, a number considered to be consistent with ‘extreme’ PTSD  symptoms, and an average increase of 7 points compared to parents in the domestic abuse group. Additionally, the majority of parents reported concerns with their mental health, while suicidal thoughts were frequently noted. 

The dissertation also noted that the increased LA intervention trauma scores could be related to the following two factors: the fear parents described of losing their children in care proceedings, and/or the often brutal way in which parents were treated by social workers.

The dissertation said:

“The finding that Local Authority intervention leads to increased trauma scores, even when  domestic violence is not present, is significant. Some of the parents in the DA group had  been victims of physical violence to the point of broken bones (Flora, Tamara, Erica), yet  these cases were not scoring as high, on average, as the removal of a child by the Local  Authority.

It is unclear whether this finding is as a result of the strategies employed by the  local authority when seeking to remove a child, which, if the parents’ accounts were  accurate, sounded callous and cruel, or whether it is the physical separation of the parent  from the child that increases the trauma. Since the fear of losing a child was strongly repeated in both groups,26 it is proposed that separation of the child is the key factor to  increased trauma scores.

Katz (2015) identifies that strong mother-child relationships  can mitigate against the psychological trauma of domestic abuse, and similarly, where the  parental relationships are broken, there could be increased psychological ramifications (Willow). Erica’s and Leo’s were both deeply moving accounts of the separation of the child,  but were not reflected as high in their scores. They both described a ‘numbing’ over the  years the cases have continued, which may distort the true trauma within their accounts.”

Despite the dissertation focusing on medical professionals’ responses to families, Adolphe noted in the research that parents found social workers to be the least pleasant of all the professionals they dealt with.

Adolphe, who now runs the Autonomy Hotline which aims to resist coercion in health and social care, told Researching Reform why she decided to focus her dissertation on a family court issue:

“I fell into this work completely by accident. Shortly after our fifth child was born, she became very poorly and was in a neonatal intensive care unit for a brief period of time. Our baby had a heart problem and doctors felt I was being over-protective of the child and was a risk to the family.

I was referred to social services and they removed her from our care.

It was horrifying how quickly and easily it happened and I couldn’t believe what went on in this country under the guise of ‘safeguarding’.

Luckily, we were able to successfully refute allegations and close the case against us. Once things had calmed down, I needed an opportunity to unpick the trauma and research what happens in other cases.

I stumbled upon the Bioethics and Medical Law Masters course at St Mary’s Twickenham, and took a leap into philosophy and ethics, which I had never done before, but I fell in love with the subject and was really glad I took that leap of faith.

I concentrated all my effort into the dissertation opportunity to research medical issues in family law. This is my analysis of 25 parents who were all going through the Best Interests Test. The research has led to building an advocacy service for families affected by issues of coercive behaviour of professionals.”

Adolphe’s research can be accessed here. 

A power point presentation of the research can be found here.

Families who would like to contact the Autonomy Hotline can do so by calling 0333 772 1227.