Judging parental competence: A cross-country analysis of judicial decision makers’ written assessment of mothers’ parenting capacities in newborn removal cases

By Jenny Krutzinna and Marit Skivenes (University of Bergen, Norway)

Child and Family Social Work, volume 26, issue 1, pages 50 – 60

Review written by Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on?

This paper reports on a study from England, Germany and Norway, in which the authors looked at how mothers’ parenting capacity was assessed, understood and justified in relation to the removal of new-born babies. 

How did they study it?

The data consists of written court judgements from the three countries, made in relation to new-born babies. In total, the paper includes 117 such cases – 27 from Germany, 76 from Norway and 14 from England. The authors looked at these written judgements and sought to analyse the information and justifications they contained relevant to the final decision. They also interviewed a small number of judges (or other court decision-makers) to help ensure that their analyses were reasonable. Using the court judgements, they i) mapped the characteristics of the cases, ii) identified discussions of parents and parenting capacity, iii) coded them for parent-related risk factors and iv) looked for discrepancies and took steps to ensure their analysis was reliable. They focused only on mothers, and not fathers, due to their “relative importance with regards to newborns and the widespread absence of fathers [from the court cases]” (p. 53). 

What did they find?

Many of the mothers were very young, with nearly-half (41%) being aged 21 or less. Nineteen of the mothers had a previous child already in care, and over one-third (36%) had a history of child protection involvement of their own. One hundred of the cases (86%) resulted in the removal of the new-born baby. A mean average of more than three ‘risk factors’ were identified in each case (3.6 in England, 3.3 in Germany, 5.6 in Norway). These included a lack of empathy for the child (in 60.7% of cases), poor parenting competency (59%), mental illness (58.1%), abuse in childhood (53%), lack of compliance (50.4%), denial of problems (47%), substance misuse (28.2%) and learning disability (28.2%). A number of ‘risk-reducing factors’ were also identified, including willingness to engage with services (58.1%), competence in some areas (24.8%) and recognition of problems (23.1%). The court judgements overall contained more information about risk factors, than risk-reducing factors, and there were clear differences between the countries in relation to which factors were most often and rarely mentioned. The judgements often lacked an attempt to balance between the risk-increasing versus the risk-reducing factors when justifying the decision. 

What are the implications?

It may be that in most, if not all, of these cases, the risk to the new-born was so high, that a balanced consideration of risk-reducing factors was impossible or irrelevant. It is also the case that because the baby was new-born, the decision was made necessarily on the basis of predicted future harm, rather than an evidenced-based assessment of actual parenting capacity. Nonetheless, the authors do invite practitioners to consider the importance of risk-reducing factors and the interplay between parenting problems and social support measures that are or could be provided. Of course, in the short-term there may be little option but to prioritise child-safety – whether the same applies to longer-term planning, or indeed when the child is older, may be less obvious.  


Review written by

Dr David Wilkins