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How Cambridgeshire is protecting the most vulnerable women

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“We have to do something different for these women, rather than just keep taking their children away.”

  • Project: Space
  • Objectives: To support women who have had their baby permanently removed and reduce recurrent removals
  • Timescale: March 2016 - March 2017
  • Cost to authority: Approximately £140,000
  • Number of staff working on project: Two project workers with part-time management, administration and research input
  • Outcomes: Aim to work with 40-50 women in 12 months to prevent any having another baby removed
  • Officer contact details: Vickie Crompton

This was the conclusion of Elaine Petch, principal social worker at Cambridgeshire CC, in early 2015 when she wrote a business case as part of a drive to reduce the number of children entering care.

Vickie crompton

Vickie Crompton, Cambridgeshire

Vickie Crompton

Extensive research locally and nationally enabled Cambridgeshire, in order to help achieve that aim, to develop the Space project, with the motto ‘Space to think, time to plan’. The project aims to support women who have had already had babies permanently removed and reduce recurrent removals.

Identifying best practice

When I was asked to produce a project plan I started by speaking to everyone I could think of who works with women who have had a baby permanently removed. I also reviewed 20 cases from 2014. I have to admit I was unprepared for the levels of learning difficulties and sexual abuse within this cohort. These were mainly young women to whom life had been very unkind and we needed to respond to them in a way that was accessible and helpful to them as women, as opposed to their status as mothers.

I anticipated that the majority of these women would have some form of mental health challenge and that treatment may have been difficult for them to access. For this reason, we decided one of the two posts within the project would need to be a mental health nurse.

In June 2015, the University of Essex held an event setting out the work of the Positive Choices project in Suffolk and the research the university was doing with the county. Positive Choices consists of two social workers working with women who have had their baby permanently removed. Their presentations were powerful, and the feedback from the women worked with was impressive. Cambridgeshire has similar rural issues to Suffolk and this event showed what solutions could be possible. I realised the model and ways of working in Cambridgeshire needed to be very similar to those in Suffolk. It is with thanks to the immense generosity of Roberta Owen and Ruth Macdonald at Suffolk, who gave their time and knowledge, that a model of working was developed for Space.

Cambridgeshire already had a project for chronically excluded adults, originally funded via Making Every Adult Matter, the partnership formed by Clinks, Homeless Link and Mind, which operates in a similar way to Positive Choices. The manager of that project, Tom Tallon, agreed to take on the operational management for the Space project. His specialism was in working flexibly and collaboratively with people that other services may have found difficult to engage and his knowledge and experience was essential in taking forward Space.

How it works

The project covers women referred to us whose babies have been permanently removed within the last six months, where the babies were under the age of two.

Space employs two workers: Sarah Newman, a community psychiatric nurse, and Gail Sawyer, a specialist in working with homeless women. In addition to this, the project has operational input from a social care clinician.

Women using Space have had social work interventions whilst pregnant and in some cases long periods of being known to social care. If change was going to be easy, it would have already happened and so creating the circumstances for change is a great challenge. Many women are able to live safe, healthy lives with their baby following social care intervention, but there will always be a minority who are not able to change, or sustain change enough to be able to care for their baby. It is these women with whom Space is working.

Many of the women using the Space project have had no significant emotional or practical support from family members or friends in their lives. The women who are referred to Space do not only have the trauma of having had one - or in one case six - babies removed from their care, challenging their identities as women; they have often suffered multiple traumas from a very early age.

It was agreed at the outset that the project would not exclude women who did not wish to have long-acting reversible contraception, as other similar projects do. Space has negotiated a fast-track for access to LARC where a woman chooses to have it and LARC will be encouraged, but it is by no means mandatory.

It is anticipated the project will work with around 40-50 women over 12 months. Some of these women will only want a short intervention and may come back to the project at a later date, while others will require a more intensive intervention.

Early successes

There have been 28 referrals and active engagement with 20 women since January this year. The youngest is 19 and the oldest is 42. Many have difficulties with their cognitive processing and one of the key issues facing them is homelessness and insecure housing.

Sarah Newman, the psychiatric nurse, told me: “I have clients living in a range of difficult circumstances, including with relatives in overcrowded properties and in tents and caravans; it is difficult to move forward when you have nowhere to call home.” Many of the women have had two or three children removed, although some have had many more. The women we work with have numerous challenges, including significant mental ill health, alcoholism and abusive partners.

There have already been some successes. A 20-year-old woman who spent a number of years in care and who had had two babies removed by age 20 was homeless when referred. She was described by professionals as “almost impossible to engage”. She is now in supported housing, has a contraceptive implant and is moving on with her life. This was achieved because her worker developed a relationship with her by driving her where she needed to go and buying her lunch, and engaging at a pace with which she was comfortable. Gail Sawyer, our homelessness specialist, told me: “We are not here to help her get her babies back, or to swoop down and be a rescuer; our role is as a supporter and advocate.”

For another woman, who had a history of suicide attempts and hospital admissions, the joint working with mental health services prevented a crisis at a key moment; she didn’t attempt suicide or become hospitalised as was feared she would.

It is early days for Space, but already it is changing the lives of women who would have otherwise been facing very uncertain futures alone. We are optimistic it will change vulnerable women’s lives in Cambridgeshire and reduce the significant costs involved in the process of permanently removing babies and children from their mothers.

Vickie Crompton, strategic lead for drugs, alcohol, domestic abuse and sexual violence, Cambridgeshire CC



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