A new study recently published by researchers at CASCADE, Cardiff University, has highlighted inequalities between women and men in the likelihood of their children being taken into care. 

  • The study demonstrates that when the same risk factors are present such as drug and alcohol misuse, single mothers are more likely to have their children taken into care than single fathers.
  • This is the case when looking at most of the common risk factors associated with children coming into care.

The study used existing data collected by social services and health services in Wales to look at the households children were living in before they entered care. Those households were then compared to the rest of the households in Wales from which no children entered care.  It focused particularly on the sorts of problems that the adults living in those households had, using the health service data to identify those problems. These included issues such as drug and alcohol misuse, learning difficulties and different types of mental health problems. We have known for a long time that these factors are associated with the likelihood of children going into care.  However, this study was able to tell us more about the circumstances in which these factors made it more likely for children to enter care.

One of the most striking findings of the study was that the majority of the factors explored had a much bigger impact on the likelihood of care if they occurred in the child’s biological mother rather than other adults in the household.  To explore this effect further the study looked specifically at the single adult households and compared how much of an effect the factors had on the likelihood of care if they were present in a single woman or a single man.  Again the majority of the issues had a bigger impact on the likelihood of care if they occurred in single women rather than in single men.  So, for example, if a single woman has a drug misuse problem it increases the chances that their children will be taken into care much more than if a single man has a drug misuse problem.  Similar patterns were found for the other parental problems looked at, with one exception: anxiety.  Single men who were suffering with anxiety were more likely to have their children taken into care than single women with anxiety.

Lead author of the study, Dr Nell Warner explained:

“These findings are both striking and really concerning, as they highlight serious inequalities relating to the circumstances in which children are likely to enter care.  There are cases where single mothers with certain levels of problems have had their children placed into care, whereas single fathers with similar levels of problems have not. That is really worrying.”

“While our study was able to highlight that this is happening it doesn’t explain why, and there could potentially be lots of explanations.  It could, for example be related to practice within social services and different attitudes to working with mothers and fathers, or it may be related to how much social services are likely to be made aware of different issues in mothers and fathers.  It may also be related to things going on more widely in society, and differing attitudes for single mothers and fathers which might affect who gets referred to social services. So it is really important we find out more about why it is happening”

Professor Jonathan Scourfield, a social work professor from Cardiff University who was also involved in the study, has had a long career researching gender in social work, and highlighted how the findings may reflect the findings of previous studies about attitudes to mothers and fathers.

“It is well known that social workers tend to focus more on mothers than fathers, for a whole host of reasons. This is powerful new evidence on the topic, looking at the whole Welsh population. It needs to be taken seriously by services working with children and families across the UK, as similar trends may well be found elsewhere.”

Dr Nell Warner concluded:

“We know that social workers are under real pressure due to high caseloads and local authority budgets being squeezed, but in my experience they are very keen to tackle the inequalities that the people they work with face, and these findings should help pinpoint areas for change.”

The research has been published in Children and Youth Services Review: Warner, N., Scourfield J., Cannings-John,R.,  Rouquette,O.Y.,  Lee, A., Vaughan,R.,  Broadhurst,K., & John,A. 2024. Parental risk factors and children entering out-of-home care: The effects of cumulative risk and parent’s sex. Children and Youth Services Review Parental risk factors and children entering out-of-home care: The effects of cumulative risk and parent’s sex – ScienceDirect .

The research team included researchers from: CASCADE, Cardiff University  (Dr Nell Warner, Professor Jonathan Scourfield, Rachael Vaughan), Centre for Trials Research, Cardiff University (Dr Rebecca Cannings-John), The Adolescent Mental Health Data Platform at Swansea University (Professor Ann John, Dr Olivier Rouquette), The SAIL Databank Swansea University (Dr Alex Lee) and Centre for Child and & Family Justice Research, Lancaster University (Professor Karen Broadhurst). The analysis was carried out at the SAIL Databank, Swansea University (https://saildatabank.com/) through the Adolescent Mental Health Data Platform.