The primary driving force behind why we do what we do, as professionals within the family justice system, is to try to achieve positive outcomes for children and their families.

Ultimately the objective of state intervention can be nothing less, in my view, than “supporting children to develop into well-adjusted and functioning adults who have a significantly reduced risk of repeating the problems within their own childhood, when they themselves have families”  

The question is – are we actually achieving this, and if not, where might change be required in our understanding of the processes from a behavioural and psychological perspective? Are we identifying actual or potential psychological harms and their physical symptoms at the right point in time and providing therapeutic input at the right time?

In the current climate where funding and available resources are severely stretched, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ensure that vulnerable children and their families are being provided with the right support at the right time. Consequently, children and their families can often find themselves distressed, feeling helpless and unsupported, resulting in adverse childhood experiences, which can lead to developmental trauma, which, if not addressed in a timely and appropriate fashion, can significantly impact how children function throughout their lifetime.

A key area, which appears to be increasingly an area for attention is Developmental Trauma.

 

What is ‘Developmental Trauma’?

‘When children experience early loss, separation, abuse or neglect their brain development is affected in significant ways. They often experience what is known as ‘Developmental Trauma’, which means their development has gone off track and they cannot behave, feel, relate and learn like other children their age.’

Developmental trauma is not confined to pre-schoolers or older children and adolescents. Neuro-scientific evidence shows that unborn babies and very young babies can also suffer trauma, for example, if the birth mother was in an abusive relationship, abused substances and alcohol, has a history of trauma herself or has a history of poor mental health. Separation from the mother at birth is a significant source of trauma and cannot be understated, similarly, following separation from a birth mother, a future separation from a familiar foster carer is a replication of that trauma. We all know these experiences for a child will be stressful, but perhaps the significance has not been given the focus that it should.

Our framework for protection of a vulnerable child can itself inflict significant and potentially enduring trauma memories in a child. Adversity, stress and loss have the greatest impact in the first eight weeks of a baby’s life; whilst the child may not recall a specific traumatic event or incident, in an infant, the brain is underdeveloped but the “memory” is held within the body.* A certain behaviour, smell or environment can trigger negative responses as a consequence of Developmental Trauma and these responses may endure into adulthood without the individual ever really being able to articulate why.

Herein lies what might be the beginning of the cycle of repeat poor parenting that our system struggles so much to break. Our teenage mum, a care leaver, is probably struggling with her behaviour, is volatile and has an inability to engage because she has suffered developmental trauma, which may never have been properly addressed during her time as a child in the child protection system.

*An informative read on this subject can be found in “The Body Keeps the Score” – Bessel van der Kolk.

 

What are the signs of Developmental Trauma?

Early identification of Developmental Trauma is key in ensuring positive outcomes for children. Quite often, children with Developmental Trauma can be mislabelled as being ‘naughty’, ‘autistic’, ‘ADHD’ or as having ‘behavioural problems’.  This in turn can lead to inadequate or inappropriate support for the child, which can result in children developing unhealthy coping strategies and difficulty with daily living skills such as being able to manage impulses, problem solve or learn new information, resulting in them continually existing in ‘fight/flight/freeze/collapse’ mode and never feeling safe throughout their lives.

Children (and the adults they grow into) with Developmental Trauma can present with an array of different signs:

  • Sensory problems
  • Dissociation
  • Attachment insecurity
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Behaviour dysregulation
  • Poor cognitive skills
  • Poor self-concept

Good news…

There is hope! According to psychologist Dr Bruce Perry, Developmental Trauma can be repaired – if the right intervention is offered at the right time, in the right order and over a long period of time. The brain is a flexible organ and is capable of recovering from the impact of trauma if given the opportunity.

The starting point to help address this trauma however is not through therapeutic intervention, this comes at a later stage, but rather it is the primary caregiver who is the key factor i.e. the parent/s or caregiver/s. If that person/s can meet the child’s needs, their relationship will be the foundation upon which the healing process can be developed and progressed: “relationships heal relationship trauma” (Dr Karen Triesman: Working with Relational and Developmental Trauma in Children and Adolescents). But there needs to be alertness that therapeutic input almost certainly has a place for the emerging young adult. That is probably where our system begins to fail. The complete package of healing has not been given to the adolescent / young adult and future parent.

What can we as lawyers do to alleviate the impact of Developmental Trauma on children?

An essential component is the identification of risk at an early stage to enable appropriate support to be put in place; it is important that the parent(s) or carer(s) are able to take care of themselves first and foremost.  For example, when an expectant mother or mother with a young child/ren presents at their solicitor’s office with the Pre-Proceedings letter before action from the local authority, the solicitor should carefully review the list of safeguarding issues. If the mother has a history of poor mental health, substance misuse or abusive relationships, antisocial conduct or was known to a local authority in their childhood it would be helpful for the solicitor to make enquiries of the mother regarding who and what support she is accessing, whether that be from the immediate family and/or professionals such as the perinatal mental health team or substance misuse services. If the mother is not accessing any support or has disengaged from such, then clear advice should be given to her at that point about the importance of availing herself of such support, not only for her own welfare but more importantly for the welfare of her unborn baby and/or children.  

A similar approach will need to be adopted when advising fathers who pose a safeguarding risk. It is important that they understand and appreciate the resulting impact of trauma on their children if they do not address their poor behaviours, poor mental health and/or negative lifestyle choices.

If necessary, further information should be sought from the local authority about what support has been offered to the parent(s) / carer(s) so that further consideration can be given as to whether it is appropriate and/or what additional support might be required.

Change takes time, and the earlier a parent can be engaged in support the better. In our current system, so often key opportunities to begin support and change are missed by a process that does not bring a young parent into the system at the earliest opportunity when it is known there is a pregnancy.

Assessments

There is no magic formula to producing a good quality assessment, whether this be a pre-birth assessment, a Children and Families Assessment or a parenting assessment.  It goes without saying that any assessment of the family should be commenced at the earliest opportunity. The assessment should consider the parent/s current situation, their capacity to change and what support is necessary. It is good practice for a clear plan of assessment to be shared with the parents; in the case of a pre-birth assessment, before the baby’s birth, so that everyone is clear about their roles and expectations.

The earlier assessments are started, the more time there is available for the parents to affect positive changes. Time is precious in allowing parents the opportunity to develop trusting relationships with a range of professionals to help them address the risks they may pose to their unborn child and/or children and reduce the impact of Developmental Trauma.

Here we often see disharmony between the child protection professionals involved. Frequently a parent has informed a health visitor/midwife / GP of a pregnancy and the local authority has consequently received an early referral. However, no action is commenced by the local authority until late in the pregnancy (often at the 26 – 28 week stage) because that tends to be the protocol/practice. That stance, in our view, is contrary to all the scientific evidence we now have available to us about how to implement improvements, support change and provide the best chance of a child remaining in their parents’ care post birth.

Lawyers – do not be shy of seeking a copy of the local authority’s pre-birth protocol. If you are instructed in pre-proceedings ask for it then, or otherwise at your earliest opportunity.

For those advising the parent/s, it is important that any assessment completed of the family is carefully scrutinised to ensure that the process has been fair and transparent.

Written agreements / contracts of expectations

Parents should be provided with a written agreement at an early stage to help them focus their minds on the changes that are required to ensure they can safely care for their baby/child/ren. 

Parents’ solicitors should carefully scrutinise any form of written agreement to ensure that what is/has been expected of the parents is not unreasonable or unrealistic and parents are clear on the purpose of the specific provisions and the consequence of noncompliance with each specific provision.

Court proceedings

For those cases which do end up before the Family Court, the importance of scrutiny on behalf of those we represent remains at the fore.  If further assessment is considered to be necessary, whether that be of the parent/s and/or child/ren, then the relevant applications pursuant to Part 25 FPR 2010 should be pursued.

Take-away points

  • Developmental Trauma can impact all ages of children including unborn babies;
  • Developmental Trauma is caused when a child experiences early loss, separation, abuse or neglect;
  • Children with Developmental Trauma can be mis-labelled as having behavioural or neurodevelopmental disorders;
  • Children with Developmental Trauma can struggle to feel safe and exist in ‘fight/flight/freeze/collapse’ mode;
  • Developmental Trauma can have adverse lifelong repercussions;
  • Developmental Trauma can be successfully addressed – ‘bottom up’ approach;
  • The primary caregiver is key – “relationships heal relationship trauma”;
  • Important the primary caregiver is able to care for themselves;

·  Early intervention, assessment and robust advice is crucial.

(Developmental Trauma information courtesy of Beacon House Therapeutic Services & Trauma Team, 2022, www.beaconhouse.org.uk)

Kristine Lidgerwood & Lyana Chan

Unit Chambers

11.10.2022

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