From being ‘at risk’ to being ‘a risk’: journeys into parenthood among young women experiencing adversity

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When young women who have grown up in contact with child protection become mothers, they shift from being regarded as a child ‘at risk’ by the child protection system, to posing ‘a risk’ to their baby. In contrast to their peers, young care leavers transition to adulthood with very few resources and little support; they typically continue to experience the economic and related adversities of their childhoods. This article draws on biographical narrative interviews with young Australian mothers to understand how they navigate child protection as new mothers. We argue that, while inequalities endure, new understandings of the system can be acquired and dispositions can adapt to function more effectively in the field of child protection. We draw on Bourdieu’s notions of capital, habitus and field to analyse young mothers' adaptations, with additional insights from Hester’s analogy of separate planets to explore their experiences of the field of child protection.

Abstract

When young women who have grown up in contact with child protection become mothers, they shift from being regarded as a child ‘at risk’ by the child protection system, to posing ‘a risk’ to their baby. In contrast to their peers, young care leavers transition to adulthood with very few resources and little support; they typically continue to experience the economic and related adversities of their childhoods. This article draws on biographical narrative interviews with young Australian mothers to understand how they navigate child protection as new mothers. We argue that, while inequalities endure, new understandings of the system can be acquired and dispositions can adapt to function more effectively in the field of child protection. We draw on Bourdieu’s notions of capital, habitus and field to analyse young mothers' adaptations, with additional insights from Hester’s analogy of separate planets to explore their experiences of the field of child protection.

Introduction

Young people experiencing economic and other adversities assemble a wide range of formal and informal resources to secure the support they need. They draw on family and friends, as well as universal services like school and healthcare, and specialist services for youth, alternative education pathways, housing, counselling, and other needs (Stevens et al, 2014; Blaxland et al, 2019; Skattebol et al, 2019). Often, young people are able to access these services because they are regarded as ‘at risk’: at risk of homelessness, at risk of violence, at risk of mental ill health, and so on (Bond, 2010). Services are designed to assist young people out of risky situations, or to help them avoid those situations. However, because they are delivered through a range of government portfolios, the supply of services is often patchy and driven by competing government imperatives. For many of these young adults, the child protection system, which aims to ensure ‘children and young people are safe and well’, is key to the resources they can access (Commonwealth of Australia, 2010). The child protection system’s primary priorities are to keep children safe and to reduce the risk of child deaths and other catastrophes, but it also delivers resources to young people to improve their life chances. However, to successfully navigate the wide range of services that are potentially available to them, young people have to develop particular skills and knowledge. They need to know who can help in which situation, and how to frame their problems and stories. They need to develop strategies for approaching a challenge and finding a solution.

When young women become pregnant, their position in the child protection system shifts and resettles, because instead of being ‘at risk’, the young mother, often merely by being young, can become regarded as ‘a risk’ to her new baby (Romagnoli and Wall, 2012). This article explores how young mothers experience, navigate and negotiate this repositioning, and asks ‘what does it mean for the way resources are delivered?’ Drawing on in-depth biographical narrative interviews we explore the experiences of young mothers whose babies became a focus of concern for child protection services. These young women are a small subset of eight drawn from a larger sample of 44 young people with complex service needs. In responding to these questions, this article examines how these young mothers and their babies experienced services and their logics. Pierre Bourdieu’s work on field, habitus and capitals provides the central framework for our analysis of these young women’s journeys through new motherhood. However, we find Hester’s (2011) three planet analogy, which extends Bourdieu’s framework of field, offers additional precision and strategic understanding of the child protection system. Hester uses the notion of different planets to trace the conflicting imperatives and orientations of workers within child protection and other family support systems.

This article focuses on the experiences of young women as they navigate early motherhood within the planets of the child protection system. In this focused approach, we recognise there is a risk of obscuring the harms done to young people by the broader structures that perpetuate inequalities in which their opportunities for action and engagements with the child protection system are situated (Featherstone et al, 2018). We want to note from the outset that learning to navigate the child protection system is only ever an incremental corrective step that may attract much-needed resources for young people who have limited or no parental and family support (Featherstone et al, 2018; Boddy, 2019); but much more is required to overcome the deep disadvantages they continue to experience, even if successfully navigating the child protection system. Nevertheless, young people’s perspectives shine a light into the everyday logics and practices in the child protection system that can provoke positive change in those logics.

Supports for ‘at risk’ young people transitioning from home care

Each year, around 3 per cent of Australian children (aged 0–17 years) come into contact with the child protection system because they are considered to be at risk of significant harm (AIHW, 2020a). In Australia, child protection is the responsibility of state and territory governments guided by a national framework, Protecting Children Is Everyone’s Business: National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2009–2020 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2010). As in the UK and other similar countries, Australian child protection policy has undergone substantial reforms over many years (Smith et al, 2017; Fernandez and Delfabbro, 2021). State-level reforms were introduced around the time of data collection. These reforms are underpinned by two key principles: permanency planning, which endeavours to make lasting placements for children within two years of them coming to the attention of child protection authorities; and early intervention and/or reunification, which seeks to work with birth families to make safe homes for children and reduce the number of children who enter and stay in care (AIHW, 2020b); 38).

Both the national framework and state-level policy include a focus on supporting young people as they transition from state care into adulthood (Campo and Commerford, 2016). In the jurisdiction where data was collected, the state is mandated to ‘arrange or provide assistance to eligible care leavers until they reach 25 years of age where such assistance is considered necessary having regard to their safety, welfare and well-being’ (FaCS, 2017:1). This support includes a planned transition from home care, which should start several years prior to the leaving age. There have long been problems with transition planning. While administrative data suggests that 73 per cent of young people approaching 18 years have an aftercare plan (AIHW, 2020c), young people themselves report a much lower rate at between 22–46 per cent (Purtell et al, 2019). We can potentially understand this counting mismatch as one that reflects the finalisation of the process and the utility of the plans that are made. In 2013, the New South Wales (NSW) Ombudsman questioned the efficacy of aftercare planning, after reviewing the experiences of 90 young people and finding that 50 left care with a plan, but only 19 of these were endorsed or properly finalised. A further 20 young people completed plans after leaving care. Moreover, the NSW Ombudsman (2013) found that close to half the plans were inadequate and the majority were substantially delayed. If plans are not complete, useful or acted on, young people may be unaware they were ever made, and thus are more likely to indicate they never received one.

Understood as a group ‘at risk’ of poor outcomes in in transitions to adulthood (such as at risk of homelessness, at risk of mental ill health, or at risk of challenges in education and employment), young care leavers are entitled to a suite of services to support them as they leave care, known as aftercare services. Non-government organisations are funded to provide aftercare programmes, which aim to work collaboratively with young people aged 15 to 25 years as they navigate independent living, including practical and emotional support, provided through caseworkers, mentoring programmes and other services (Skattebol et al, 2019). A leaving care plan is not an essential requirement to access use of an aftercare service. This still falls far short of the support received by their better-off counterparts – those 18 to 29 year olds who have not lived in out-of-home care – more than half of whom continue to live with one or both parents with all of the support that generally entails (Wilkins and Vera-Toscano, 2019). In recognition of the resources other young people access through family, a national campaign, Home Stretch, argued that out-of-home care should extend beyond the age of 18 years to provide longer access to more substantial support.

Unfortunately, too little is known about the experiences of young people after they leave care in Australia. There is no systematic monitoring across Australia to assess outcomes of care leavers over the age of 18 (Mendes and McCurdy, 2020). Nonetheless, research shows young people leaving out-of-home care commonly experience difficulties with fundamental needs in their transition to adulthood: housing, health, education, training and employment (Mendes and McCurdy, 2020; O’Donnell et al, 2020). Their social, cultural and economic capital is severely limited compared with their peers. Most have disadvantaged family backgrounds. Too often, after being removed from their birth families they were put in unstable and poor-quality out-of-home care placements. Consequently, they move into adulthood without the family and community support networks that other young people can more readily access (Mendes and McCurdy, 2020).

Importantly, research also indicates that young women who have been in contact with the child protection system are more likely to become mothers at a young age than their peers (Muir et al, 2019). Many of these young mothers go on to have further contact with the system after their children are born (Hopkins et al, 2019). They commonly enter motherhood with little family support, limited knowledge of pregnancy or parenthood, few resources, and poor, unstable housing or homelessness. Despite the extensive challenges faced by this group of parents, the NSW Ombudsman (2013) found that they rarely had appropriate parenting and other supports in place.

Being ‘a risk’ as a young mother

The dual focus in child protection on early intervention and permanency planning leads to different imperatives – what Hester (2011) describes as different ‘planets’. Early intervention aims to resource adult family members to make the family environment safe for children, while permanency planning aims remove children from unsafe environments and provide stability by placing them with safe families as soon as possible.

If they have grown up in contact with child protection, young women experience a shift in the child protection system when they become mothers. As children, they were of primary concern to the child protection system, which aimed to mitigate their exposure to risk and this meant providing support when they ‘got into trouble’, such as losing accommodation, being a victim of violence, or becoming mentally unwell. They were allowed to make false starts and mistakes. However, as mothers, the gaze of the system changes. As mothers, they are responsible for their children’s safety, and ‘getting into trouble’ could now be interpreted by the system as a risk to their child. The examples of ‘getting into trouble’ listed above would now trigger a different response from the systems around them. Their own histories, seen as indicators of risk (Bond, 2010; Brand et al, 2015), amplify any mistakes they make. Early interventions are resource intensive and often marked by multiple false starts. False starts in this field are enormously risky – they may occur on the planet of ‘early intervention’ but this planet is in the gravitational pull of permanency planning. False starts can be recorded in case files in ways that create evidence that early intervention is failing and so provide an incentive for removing the child from their mother.

Not surprisingly, then, research with young mothers reports that they experience high levels of surveillance and critical scrutiny from child protection workers during their children’s early years (Chase et al, 2009; valentine et al, 2019). Young mothers fear child protection workers, whom they consider to be more concerned with monitoring and controlling their lives than with providing assistance (Cashmore and Paxman, 1996). Yet against this sense that they are subject to an unrelenting gaze of suspicion, pregnancy and early motherhood can contribute to a catalyst for change. Many young women, on becoming mothers, become highly committed to providing and caring for their children and motivated to be independent and responsible (Brand et al, 2015; Ware et al, 2017).

Ongoing and adequate support is essential for young women who desire to provide more safety, stability and opportunity for their children than their own parents did (Cashmore and Paxman, 1996). Close surveillance by child protection workers of young mothers can work in two ways. It can mean that it is more likely their children will be considered at risk, or it may mean that resources are delivered more effectively and efficiently. The difference between the two is one of policy approaches (towards either rights-based or corrective approaches), policy enactments, and how skilled and supported street-level bureaucrats are to do their complex work. For young mothers, it is the difference between keeping or losing their children.

Habitus and field for young mothers

Before turning to our method and data, we offer a conceptual framework from Pierre Bourdieu that has helped us examine how young mothers engage with service systems. Bourdieu uses concepts of habitus, field and capitals to describe the relationship between social actors and their surrounding social structures.

The structures of society are organised into a series of social fields such as families, workplaces, communities and systems. As noted earlier in this article, it would be possible – even intuitive – to identify the child protection system as ‘a’ single field but Hester’s (2011) notion of separate planets allows us to see the logics of practice in child protection (early intervention and permanency planning1) as different fields. It is important to note here that no one inhabits one field only: we all move across fields in our everyday lives. Young people move between family, education, housing, employment, income support, youth services and multiple configurations of community.

People navigate their way through and across fields, drawing on forms of capital they have accrued along the way. These capitals are ‘a collection of goods and skills, of knowledge and acknowledgments, belonging to an individual or a group that they can mobilize to develop influence, gain power, or bargain’ within a field (Neveu, 2018: 348). We are interested in the cultural capital – ‘made of knowledge and know-how, of the skills and analytical tools that allow one to manage and produce social relations, cultural products, and technical devices’ (Neveu, 2018: 350) – that is useful in the child protection system.

The concept of habitus nuances the idea of capitals and insists that it is not automatic for people to recognise, accrue or know how to deploy capitals. Habitus refers to the deeper, often subconscious structures that guide our actions. Bourdieu calls habitus, a ‘system of lasting and transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 18). The nature of habitus, therefore, is shaped by a person’s experience of social structures and their internalisation of their position within them (Bourdieu, 1990). Habitus is what makes some fields feel like home – we are a ‘fish in water’ and take ‘the world [around us] for granted’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 127). Habitus operates deftly in a known and comfortable environment (Neveu, 2018). But, if habitus is not well aligned with the field, if we cannot understand the rules, our assumptions are misconstrued and our actions out of place.

But because habitus is always operating in relation to the field, it can change as understandings of new contexts grow, new forms of capital are accrued (however painfully), and new orientations and strategies emerge (Noble and Watkins, 2003). Understandings of habitus as something that is learnt, reflects how people change and acclimatise over time.

In this article, we argue that radical changes in one’s position within a field are bewildering and deeply unnerving. They impede the reshaping habitus and the acquisition of new forms of capital. Shifting from being a child in the child protection system to a mother is an abrupt shift and the stakes are enormously high. As a starting point, we take stories from young women who have been moved from their position as a receiver of protection. We consider effective practices that allow the capitals of young people who have grown up on one planet in the system to be utilised effectively on another planet. When social systems in all their complexity can build on the life knowledge and forces of those who are structurally disadvantaged (including young care leavers) then we may interrupt the transfer of deep and pernicious intergenerational inequalities.

Methodology

This article draws on biographical narratives from eight young mothers. These are part of a larger study with 44 young people aged 12 to 26 years in Australia. All had complex needs and multiple points of contact with the service systems. We developed a purposive sample in consultation with our research partners – both funders and providers of child protection services. Staff in frontline positions across a range of youth services helped with recruitment and subsequent support for the young people if they needed it. We conducted interviews in six different sites: a mix of large and small metropolitan areas and regional towns.

We conducted biographical narrative interviews to understand the meaning young people make of adversity and services. In the first and longest biographical narrative interview, we asked, ‘tell us about a time when things were tough and you needed extra support,’ and interviewers then allowed the young person to narrate their story (offering as little scaffolding as the young person required). After a week, we returned for a semi-structured follow-up interview to check our understanding and seek more detail. A year or so later, we conducted another biographical narrative interview focused on the time since we last met them.

The analysis here draws on two sources of data. The first was a ‘participant history’ – an initial analytic artefact produced to summarise key events, relationships and services in participants’ lives, as well as researcher reflection. This was an adaptation of the ‘case history’ developed by Henderson et al (2012), renamed because of the negative associations of Henderson’s term with child protection department case files. The participant histories revealed themes, dispositions and motifs for each life story. The next stage of analysis involved cross-case examination, looking for patterns, similarities and differences. This revealed a perinatal shift in the service systems around young mothers, presented in the next section. The third stage of analysis utilised iterative categorisation (Neale, 2016), systematically examining interview transcripts, coding and extracting relevant material. Finally, we condensed and reassembled participants’ words until only the most illustrative elements remained, and these were edited for clarity and flow and arranged into the narratives presented below. In using biographical data and reconstructed stories from the words of participants, we are not suggesting that these told stories present a true version of events. Rather these stories are memories, subject to all the reworking of hindsight. However, as such they tell us a lot about how the young women understood their lives (Thomson and Holland, 2005).

In this article we present a short analysis of the whole sample, and then two cases, those of Fern and Sally. These detailed, in-depth stories are necessary to see beneath the surface and consider how habitus works in relation to capital and the planets of child protection. The key findings from these two stories resonate with the stories of the other young mothers. All the names are pseudonyms and some details are changed or omitted to ensure the young mothers’ anonymity is protected. The project has ethics approval from the University of New South Wales Human Research Ethics Committee.

The sample of young mothers

The eight young mothers were aged between 19 and 25 at first meeting. Two were pregnant with their first children, the others had between one and four children. Half were raising their children. Three of the young women were not living with their children because they had been removed by child protection authorities. One of these, Fern, was living with her youngest child who was born after her eldest was removed.

As children, seven of the eight young mothers in our study had contact with child protection authorities when they were children. The eighth did not discuss child protection but did describe an unstable childhood and time spent living with her grandmother. Two were raised in kin care and five in out-of-home care. Some described the child protection system as a formative influence on their identity, labelling themselves ‘DOCS kids’ (as the child protection department is colloquially and intergenerationally known, in spite of the fact the department was not called this at the time and has had many name changes and restructures). Our commentary here is one that pertains to young people with unstable childhoods and multiple placements.

A shared experience of economic adversity meant they were struggling for the most basic and customary of childhood supports and experiences. All seven of the eight mothers recounted histories of housing precarity and mobility. They moved between multiple foster and kinship placements, refuges and spent periods couch surfing. Bree told us she had lived in “probably about 60-something” refuges since she was 13 because “no one wants to foster an older child”. Two had spent time sleeping rough on the streets. The stories shared certain characteristics: no stable home, few if any stable relationships or role models, no safe territory from which to develop self-regulation and risk taking, no swimming or driving lessons, no extra-curricular activities, fragmented schooling. With childhoods focused on survival, there was often little time to learn – and no one to explain – the incrementally understood social norms and practices: look teachers in the eye, own up to small mistakes, refine saying sorry without saying everything is your fault, give positive feedback to others, pick your battles. No parental or sibling advice about how to deal with authorities that target those who are young and poor: never run from the police, keep your hands visible in times of conflict, have a trusted adult who understands the system to advocate for you.

Leaving care and encountering the system as a mother

The young women’s lives reflected the typical patterns reflected in statistical data about care leavers. They experienced varying levels of childhood trauma, family conflict, instability and social disadvantage (Mendes and McCurdy, 2020; O’Donnell et al, 2020). When they became mothers the enduring under-resourcing that had placed them ‘at risk’ in the first place continued, but the focus on their needs was replaced by a focus on the child.

For some, childhood contact with the child protection system was patchy, with protective services intervening in their families’ lives in moments of crisis, or otherwise providing sporadic support. Tula told us that when the department changed her out-of-home care placement when she was 11 she was never assigned a new case manager and “didn’t hear from them [again]”. After moving out of kinship care at age 16, Tula eventually found an aftercare programme that offered her intermittent financial assistance for specific items like shoes and bedding. While useful, she was not consulted about what she needed and had capacity to use. While Tula’s experience was of ad-hoc support, others found the scrutiny from child protection authorities to be heavy-handed and a source of trauma. This heavy-handedness was familiar to those who had observed their own parents needing to perform ‘good’ parenting while under the gaze of authorities.

Child protection authorities had intervened in various ways in the young women’s lives. However, there were enough shared orientations and dispositions to indicate a shared habitus. This could well be reinforced in encounters they had with each other in refuges, the streets and other institutions. The shared nomenclature of being ‘DoCS kids’ has the potential to encourage young people to form norms and dispositions. All talked about themselves as unwanted, and exhibited a weariness (and its companion – tenacity) and lack of trust with authorities and social systems. Most had a fragile sense of safety that was defined through freedom from physical violence. They discussed social isolation and the challenges of maintaining friendships and relationships. They were prepared for battles with authorities and with friends, community and family.

When they became mothers the young women who had observed ongoing child protection interventions were highly attuned the implications of being regarded as a risk to their child. They went to great lengths to conform to what was required of them so their children would not be removed. But even when the gaze was familiar, they experienced a tectonic shift. No longer being regarded by child protection as the subject of ‘care’ undermined their already fragile and sometimes brittle sense of deserving care. For those who had not seen their own parents treated as the problem, the change was unfathomable. A subterranean seam of anger (expressed both as rage and tedium) emerged in the interviews.

The differences in intensity and types of contact with child protection in their childhoods meant the group had varying levels of knowledge, confidence and resources at their disposal to achieve what was expected of them as mothers. They articulated what were sometimes highly gendered demands of good mothering based on gendered norms of appearance and behaviour, something that has been described in other work with young mothers as the ‘demands of respectability’ (Vincent et al, 2010: 127). Some knew they were regarded as the problem but lacked the resources to navigate the planets effectively. Nikki, for instance, undertook five parenting courses in an effort to have her baby son restored to her, but still failed to convince caseworkers she could parent. Nikki likened to a full-time job the work involved in regaining custody of her son – engaging with counsellors, lawyers, income support agencies, doctors, housing authorities and the child protection service. The efforts not only speak to their personal capabilities but also to the structural inequalities which create a diminished set of available resources compared with those who can rely on families.

All talked about how pregnancy and becoming a mother transformed their lives. They strived to create stable family and home lives for their children amid their social isolation. For those who had their children removed, restoration was a goal around which they planned and oriented their lives.

Divergent examples of system capital

In this section, we present long, edited extracts from two young mothers’ biographical narratives. These provide an opportunity to hear the young women’s own words and understand their experiences of embarking on motherhood with very limited resources. Such thick descriptions offer an opportunity to think through these young women’s capitals, dispositions and orientations in the field of child protection. This is Fern’s story.

‘It was pretty rough growing up in that house. I had a really bad childhood growing up in that family … I used to go to sleep crying every night … I was literally doing everything in the house … [My aunty] made me stop going to school and she sent me off to work in a factory … after work I would still go back to the abuse … the violence.

‘I left home at 14 … I didn’t know there were services out there that could take me in and stuff like that. But at that age I thought to myself, “Well, I should just leave and find out.” … I rang up the cops because that was the only number I knew … I had to wait … for DoCS to come and pick me up from the police station.

‘Then from there I went to refuges … Every placement was like one, two months, some three months … I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I’m free, I can do whatever now” … [I was always getting kicked out] because I would abscond from refuges and I wouldn’t come home by curfew.

‘I was 15 when I met my kid’s father … I lived with him and he was all right at first and then he started being abusive, like violent, towards me … Then I was pregnant with my son.

‘When he was born, [DOCS] stepped in [to ensure the baby had a safe environment]. They assessed my cousin’s place as OK because of my aunty always coming over, but she never protected me from beatings and what was happening to me as a child. [When I moved to my cousin’s house] my aunt always came over and acted like she was the boss of me ... [When my baby was about four weeks old] I decided to run away … My family rang up DoCS and said, “Oh, she’s missing.”

‘So DoCS found us and took us back to the office … they’re all like, that was really not a good thing what you did … Running away with a four-week child … I said, “Look I had to … because my aunty would come in and she would start hitting me in front of my son … So I had to leave.” I said that to DoCS and they were like, why didn’t you – you should have called us.

‘They ended up taking me to a placement with all the mums and the kids … they did parenting there and just having that routine of being a mum … I really, really loved it.

I went to court and DoCS wanted me to do a different parenting course as well as the placement and my solicitor said to me, “Oh you know, I just think that DoCS is bullying you into doing it. Why would you need to do extra stuff to prove to them that you can be a mum because you’re doing really well at [the mums’ and kids’ place]. I think we shouldn’t agree to this.” This is what my solicitor said at the time. So I said, “Oh yeah whatever, just say that.”

‘The following week, they came into the parenting place and they said, “Look we’re going to take your son because you didn’t agree to the stuff that we wanted you to do in court.”

‘DoCS didn’t give me that chance to prove myself to them that I was capable … I would say they just judged me from my past … because it says it all on my son’s keep plan. It says, “Oh because of her past when she used to stay in refuges, she would abscond from refuges.” … They think that I was going to continue on doing that with this child … When my son was born, I wasn’t doing that … I was getting myself out of that situation.’

This extract underscores the lack of safety and autonomy in Fern’s early life. Initially, she felt safe just to be out of the violent family home. However, her early experiences of not being allowed any autonomy resonated too closely with the restrictions of tight refuge rules. Her newfound senses of safety and autonomy were entangled for her and she had not learnt, as most children do, how to trade off some autonomy for certain forms of safety. Furthermore, the refuge system was structured by a logic of practice where breaches (the exercise of autonomy) held the consequence of being expelled back into homelessness. She quickly discovered that being a homeless minor meant that she was generally able to find a new temporary place. So she learnt that when she breached the rules there was very little consequence except for mobility. The resourcing in this refuge system is very different from that commonly available to better-off peers, where breaches of rules may attract short- or even long-term consequences, but not expulsion from the family. The latter allows young people to learn from mistakes. The rules in the refuge system meant that Fern did not learn that safety is often a trade-off.

Soon she was pregnant and then had a baby. The child protection authorities placed her back within reach of her abusive aunt. For Fern, this was not a safe placement so she ran away to keep herself and her baby safe. Now running away had dire consequences. She was no longer the child protection system’s first priority, and rather than being rehoused with her baby, her baby was removed.

Fighting to have him restored, she found herself placed under a court order and given a place in a residential parenting programme. This was a supported environment where she could learn and make mistakes. However, she was soon faced with poor legal advice about the importance of compliance with child protection recommendations and she refused a participation in an additional parenting programme. As far as the child protection authority was concerned, this was further evidence she was a risk to her son and Fern was unable to get her son restored to her care.

What is important to note in Fern’s story is the price of being a learner in this field of child protection. Resistance and the subversion of rules are very common among young people whose experience of institutions is that their knowledge and skill is a ‘bad fit’ (Mills, 2008). Julie McLeod (2005) draws attention to the dissonance experienced by economically disadvantaged young people when they come into contact with schooling institutions. However, in the field of child protection the price of being seen as rebellious is catastrophic. Young mothers lose children and may not be able to get them back even when they modify their practices. There are none of the protections or buffers available to their better-off counterparts. There are only case workers to guide them, and they are typically focused on the child, not the parent.

In contrast to Fern’s lack of familiarity with the child protection system, Sally had grown up with child protection services. Sally’s home life was similarly marked with domestic violence. However, Sally had spent time with a family that functioned better, which highlighted the difference in habitus compared with her own family. This awareness of her own family’s norms, and her relationship with her trusted aunt, meant she was better able to adapt her behaviours when motherhood changed her position in the field of child protection.

‘When I first met my partner, Adrian, and went to his family house it was like walking in a whole different life. He has his mum and dad, they both work, they own their own house, they don’t yell … I found out I was pregnant … Adrian came over … and touched my belly and he goes “I hope you are” … He wanted a kid. I wasn’t ready.’

Sally was acutely aware of the need to demonstrate markers of ‘good motherhood’.

‘I was living in a bedsitter and I didn’t have my priorities completely checked and I didn’t want to have my son raised how I was raised … [which] wasn’t a stable environment for kids. Mum should have done the right thing … I never thought that you would have to work and go make a living. I thought you stay at home, because that’s what I seen her do. Like the drinking and getting off your head, that’s why my other sisters all lost their kids … Not one of my sisters have their kids. It kind of feels like a bit of a burden because my aunty always says, “Don’t be like the rest of them. Do the right thing.” I don’t do no drugs. I don’t drink at all.

‘I told [a youth worker] that I think I’m going to need someone to help. Because I was worried about that they would take him off me because I got diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar and that … He said that the child protection can help you, give you the advice about baby stuff. What you would need and what you need to do to about your mental health and that.’

This trusted youth worker connected Sally with Harriet, a late-career, early-intervention worker.

‘So we wrote up a plan … I told them that I wanted to go to TAFE. I wanted to make sure that my baby knows to get a job and not grow up in Centrelink. Yeah, get out of the Housing Commission areas. The support to make sure that no one’s going to step in to take my son.

‘I could sit there with [Harriet, my older worker] and she just had like a maturity about her where she didn’t judge …’

Harriet was focused on early intervention work with Sally. She was supporting the family to build resources so the baby could thrive. However, she soon retired and Sally was faced with a neophyte social worker who was less certain about how to keep the two planets of child protection – preventing child deaths and early intervention – in alignment. The high stakes around the first of these meant she was unable to attend to Sally’s learning needs and she was preoccupied with Sally’s mental health and poor experiences of being parented.

‘But with Janet [my new worker] I did feel really embarrassed … She is my age … She’s had the good, perfect life … She doesn’t have a clue of where I have been in my life.

It’s not a risk here. My son’s fed. Then she [Janet] tried to make out, “Oh but you didn’t look like you brushed your hair that day and your son had a bit of stuff on his face.” He’d just ate fucking breakfast. Like I’m sorry he had some food on his face.

‘Because you’re tired and that from your son and doing everything around the house and cleaning and doing the washing and food and all that … It’s just because I’m having a bad day. She says that … she’s here to listen if I need help. … But no … I’ll have a cry to her and that and then, I’ll see her the next time and she’s like, “I don’t think it’s safe. You seemed really unhappy. You seemed miserable last time.” … But then I realise not to vent to her anymore. Not to talk to her and tell her exactly how I feel. Just smile and leave, because she’s just going to twist it into some stupid thing. That’s how I see it.’

Despite overt assurances that Sally that she could speak openly about the challenges in her life, Sally quickly understood that her new worker, Janet, was primarily concerned with risks to the baby. Ordinary manifestations of life with a baby – a mother in tears because she is tired, a baby with food on his face – were being read as signs that Sally was struggling with motherhood. Sally knew that a negative report from Janet could mean her baby was removed from her care. So Sally drew on her cultural capital and developed a new strategy – do not share troubles, do not ask for help, “Just smile and leave.” The problem with this, of course, is that she was no longer receiving parenting support that targeted the things she did not know.

There is no question that Sally faced challenges. As a child and teenager, she moved through multiple placements and back to her family of origin, with child protection authorities stepping in when the family reached crisis point. These moves were sometimes traumatic. Sally described the whole family being taken to a government community services centre, where “someone [was] touching my hand, just ripping it off and I got thrown into the DOCS homes”. She had seen her mother and her sisters lose their children. She felt clear that without substantial changes in her life, there was a high risk her own child would be removed. Sally was determined to keep her son, so she set about using her knowledge of the system and determination. Sally explained that despite the challenges, having a child was a positive change for her: “now I’ve got my son and it’s the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. I feel like I’ve got a family and I refuse to give that family up.” This was the energy that her old case worker had harnessed to support Sally learning to parent.

Sally knew the value in persistence, so she “kept ringing housing up … kept ringing … Then eventually housing rang and said that I got a place.” Through careful use of her knowledge of the system, Sally began to establish herself as a safe young mother for her son.

What we see in these two detailed stories and in the others in our sample, is how much energy these young care leavers needed to expend to get resources from the system that are available to other mothers through their families. We can also see that complex skills are needed by caseworkers, to enable young women chances to learn parenting in the context of their fragile grasps on safety, stability, and being deserving of support when few resources are available.

Hester’s planets analogy neatly describes the child protection logics faced by children and parents, and which the policy makers and workforce struggle to align. There are of course many other planets or fields in the service systems that shape the capitals and habitus of young mothers –income support, housing, education, health and employment. Fern had a strong work ethic which could have served her well in the education and employment system. These capitals were overlooked in the child protection system. She needed someone to demonstrate how to convert her capital into something that would be valued in the system. All of these intersecting fields have their own logics and the capitals of disadvantaged young people can rarely easy convert across fields.

Finally, we want to offer another account of an intervention that allowed Fern to convert her capital so it could be recognised in the system. This intervention is important because it involved ‘out-of-portfolio’ work. When Fern was pregnant with her second child, her approach to resources within the system changed.

‘When I was five months’ pregnant with my daughter my boyfriend bashed me so bad that my lip split open, to the point where I said to myself, “That’s it!”

‘Then [I called one of my former] refuge case workers … we’re the same nat [nationality] and she knows [Māori] and she knows our background.

‘So she’s like, “Oh my gosh, what did I tell you about this guy?” She was just giving it to me and I’m bleeding everywhere … So she’s taken me to [the] police station … They went back and they arrested him. They put him in custody, I had to go to court. There was an apprehended violence order (AVO) in place, yeah, so he wasn’t allowed to come near me, not even try to contact me … he doesn’t know where I live.

‘Then I had my daughter and this is when I’m actually in a house now … they [the youth service] worked towards getting me into a house before my baby was born.

‘She’s four now … she’s with me. She’s in my care … I’m married now … Respectable woman now … When I met this new guy it was the turnaround point for me because he was more of like a family type and he wasn’t abusive … he just wanted to have a family and that was it. That was the kind of guy that I was looking for.

‘Everything I tried to do good, it always ended up bad … I can’t believe I actually made it from there to what I am now.’

This part of Fern’s story demonstrates how, with the right type of support, habitus does adapt to new circumstances with time. The process required sustained exposure to new experiences brokered by someone who could translate, and advocate in, the two worlds of Fern’s home culture and the broader systems. With this, Fern was able to convert the capital she had, her work ethic and her knowledge of keeping a house, to be valued in the child protection system.

During her second pregnancy, when she was attacked, Fern didn’t run away, she called a worker in a refuge whom she trusted. This worker understood Fern, her culture and her background. This meant she understood Fern’s values, dispositions and orientations. The fact that Fern struggled to reconcile safety with autonomy was deeply understood. Further, the worker, having travelled some of this path herself, knew how to use that capital to engage successfully with mainstream services. So under her wing, Fern stayed in contact with support services. She developed new, more nuanced skills, worked with community services in order to protect herself and her baby, and developed a healthy relationship. She achieved what Vincent et al (2010) describe as the ‘demands of respectability’.

Fern’s story shows the importance of intersectional understandings of who young people in care are, and the need for workers to be able to ‘know’ the young people they are matched with. This offers critical role models to young people like Fern and Sally who have few people they want to emulate. The planets in the system do not make it easy for people to conduct this work. The necessary skills for supporting young, under-resourced, traumatised mothers are highly specialised. However, these stories demonstrate the importance of skills transfers across planets and fields, and the importance of resisting the gravitational pull of permanency planning when we are talking about young people who have been in child protection themselves.

Conclusion

The child protection system falls short of its aim to ensure ‘children and young people are safe and well’ (Commonwealth of Australia, 2010), where all children are resourced via families to accrue and use familial and public resources to secure decent lives. The enduring problem of chronic under-resourcing in childhood and in the transition to adulthood is highlighted in the stories of young mothers who have been through the child protection system themselves as children. When a young women becomes pregnant, the child protection system refocuses its attention from the young woman as a child ‘at risk’ to the baby living with a mother who poses ‘a risk’.

The child protection system operates on two planets, that of early intervention to work with families to keep children safe, and that of permanency planning which seeks to quickly secure children with a long-term, safe family. These two planets have different imperatives. To succeed, the first needs to provide young mothers, who want to do the best by their children, but who do not have the cultural, economic or social capital to do so, with opportunities to learn, and make mistakes, in order to develop a safe home environment. The second constantly scans for risk to the child, always ready to remove that child from their mother’s care when the risk appears too high. This planet allows little or no opportunity for learning from missteps. For workers, balancing the interplanetary pull of these two systems cannot be easy, and Sally’s inexperienced worker shows how powerful the gravity of the permanency planning system can be for workers who do not know how to support young mothers to learn. The more patient and supportive approach of Sally’s experienced worker suggests that such highly skilled case workers maybe a better match for young mothers who have highly disadvantaged backgrounds and history of being in child protection themselves as children.

Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and capitals offer a valuable framework for interpreting the experiences and complexities of child protection for young care leavers who become mothers. Their childhoods in disadvantaged families and unstable child protection placements provide these young women with very few resources as they start adulthood. They have almost no economic capital and often little social capital, especially when compared with their peers who have grown up in stable families. Furthermore, their cultural capital is not always readily matched to the challenges of navigating the child protection planets with young babies. Some, like Sally, bring insights from their own childhoods on how to adapt to child protection surveillance, and she quickly learned to present herself as a competent mother while foregoing the potential resources that are available were she to present ‘needs’. Others, like Fern, need time and support to accumulate and adapt their cultural capital to the new system requirements. Hester’s analogy of ‘planets’ further shows how even two aspects of the one government agency can operate with substantially different logics, creating additional complexity for young mothers as they learn to parent under the gaze of child protection.

Young women who have been connected to child protection as children, start motherhood in a system that is ‘both punitive and neglectful’(Featherstone et al, 2018:12) The implication of this research is that mothers and their children need to be immersed in resource-rich environments while they are recipients of early intervention, and should be considered as one unit rather than as two binary units requiring support. They need stable long-term housing, early childhood education and care, education, mentoring from people with similar experiences, support groups, swimming lessons, driving lessons, and so on. Moreover, as with other young adults, these young mothers need to know that they can leave places of intensive early intervention and support and return in the future if they need to. Finally, we must address the high levels of social inequality that results in extreme under-resourcing, because this inequality creates unsafe environments for mothers and babies.

Note

1

Hester’s (2011) work is focused on children in domestic violence contexts and she includes the ‘planets’ of child protection, domestic violence and child contact arrangements.

Funding

This work was supported by the Australian Research Council under a Linkage Grant LP150100716, in partnership with Uniting, New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services, and Mission Australia.

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the young women who so generously shared their stories and insights with us so we could better understand how services might meet their needs. Thank you, too, to the anonymous reviewers who were both generous and perceptive when providing feedback and so substantially improved this article.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Blaxland, M., Skattebol, J., Thomson, C., Hamilton, M., valentine, k. (2019) Stories of Educational Engagement Among Young People with Complex Needs: A Snapshot from the Stories of Resourcing and Resourcefulness Project, Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney, doi: 10.26190/5dba2942b3cbe.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Boddy, J. (2019) Troubling meanings of ‘family’ for young people who have been in care: from policy to lived experience, Journal of Family Issues, 40(16): 223963, http://dx.doi.org.wwwproxy1.library.unsw.edu.au/10.1177/0192513X18808564. doi: 10.1177/0192513X18808564

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bond, S. (2010) Integrated Service Delivery for Young People: A Literature Review, Melbourne: Brotherhood of St Laurence.

  • Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

  • Brand G., Morrison P. and Down B. (2015) ‘You don’t know half the story’: deepening the dialogue with young mothers in Australia, Journal of Research in Nursing, 20(5): 35369. doi: 10.1177/1744987114565223

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Campo, M. and Commerford, J. (2016) Supporting Young People Leaving Out-of-Home Care, Child Family Community Australia Information Exchange, Paper No. 41, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cashmore J. and Paxman M. (1996) Longitudinal Study of Wards Leaving Care, Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre.

  • Chase, E., Knight, A., Warwick, I. and Aggleton, P. (2009) Supporting Young Parents: Pregnancy and Parenthood among Young People from Care, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Commonwealth of Australia (2010) Protecting children is everyone’s business: national framework for protecting Australia’s children 2009–2020, Annual report, www.dss.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/pac_annual_rpt_0.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FaCS (New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services) (2017) Guidelines for the Provision of Assistance after Leaving Out-of-homecare, Sydney: FaCS.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Featherstone, B., Gupta, A., Morris, K. and Warner, J. (2018) Let’s stop feeding the risk monster: towards a social model of child protection, Families, Relationships and Societies, 7(1): 722. doi: 10.1332/204674316X14552878034622

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fernandez, E. and Delfabbro, P. (2021) Policy and trends in child welfare in Australia and the global context, in E. Fernandez and P. Delfabbro (eds) Child Protection and the Care Continuum: Theoretical, Empirical and Practice Insights, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 326.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Henderson S., Holland J., McGrellis S., Sharpe S. and Thomson R. (2012) Storying qualitative longitudinal research: sequence, voice and motif, Qualitative Research, 12(1): 1634. doi: 10.1177/1468794111426232

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hester, M. (2011) The three planet model: towards an understanding of contradictions in approaches to women and children’s safety in contexts of domestic violence, British Journal of Social Work, 41(5): 83753. doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcr095

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hopkins, J., Butler, M., Shuttleworth, L., Paxman, M., Zhou, A. and Burke, S. (2019) Children in Out-of-Home Care with Young Parents. Pathways of Care Longitudinal Study: Outcomes of Children and Young People in Out-of-Home Care, Research Report Number 19, Sydney: New South Wales Department of Family and Community Services.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McLeod, J. (2005) Feminists re-reading Bourdieu: old debates and new questions about gender habitus and gender change, Theory and Research in Education, 3(1): 1130. doi: 10.1177/1477878505049832

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mendes, P. and McCurdy, S. (2020) Policy and practice supports for young people transitioning from out-of-home care: an analysis of six recent inquiries in Australia, Journal of Social Work, 20(5): 599619. doi: 10.1177/1468017319852702

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mills, C. (2008) Reproduction and transformation of inequalities in schooling: the transformative potential of the theoretical constructs of Bourdieu, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(1): 7989. doi: 10.1080/01425690701737481

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Muir, S., Purtell, J., Hand, K. and Carroll, M. (2019) Beyond 18: The Longitudinal Study on Leaving Care Wave 3 Research Report: Outcomes for Young People Leaving Care in Victoria, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neale, J. (2016) Iterative categorization (IC): a systematic technique for analysing qualitative data’’, Addiction, 111(6): 1096106. doi: 10.1111/add.13314

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neveu, E. (2018) Bourdieu’s capital(s): sociologizing an economic concept, in T. Medvetz and J.J. Sallaz (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu, New York: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • New South Wales Ombudsman (2013) The Continuing Need to Better Support Young People Leaving Care, Report under Section 13 of the Community Services (Complaints, Reviews and Monitoring) Act 1993, Sydney: NSW Ombudsman.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Noble, G. and Watkins, M. (2003) So, how did Bourdieu learn to play tennis? Habitus, consciousness and habituation, Cultural Studies, 17(3–4): 52039. doi: 10.1080/0950238032000083926

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • O’Donnell, R., Hatzikiriakidis, K., Mendes, P., Savaglio, M., Green, R., Kerridge, G., Currie, G. and Skouteris, H. (2020) The impact of transition interventions for young people leaving care: a review of the Australian evidence, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 25(1): 107688.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Purtell, J., Muir, S. and Carroll, M. (2019) Beyond 18: The Longitudinal Study on Leaving Care Wave 2 Research Report: Transitioning to Post-care life, Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Romagnoli A. and Wall, G. (2012) ‘I know I’m a good mom’: young, low-income mothers’ experiences with risk perception, intensive parenting ideology and parenting education programmes, Health, Risk and Society, 14(3): 27389. doi: 10.1080/13698575.2012.662634

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Skattebol, J., Hamilton, M., Thomson, C., Blaxland, M. and valentine, k. (2019) Stories of Aftercare Services and Support Needs after Leaving Care: A Snapshot from the Stories of Resourcing and Resourcefulness Project, (SPRC Report11/19), Sydney: Social Policy Research Centre, UNSW Sydney, doi: 10.26190/5ce5ed1459df0.

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