Building on the findings from the national study of mothers in recurrent care proceedings in England, this paper proposes that the concepts of complex trauma and epistemic trust may help explain parents’ difficulties in engaging with child protection services. With the aim of advancing theoretical knowledge, qualitative data drawn from interviews with 72 women who have experienced repeat care proceedings are revisited, with a focus on women’s developmental histories and accounts of engagement with professionals, to probe the issue of service engagement. The article starts with a succinct review of the literature on parental non-engagement in child protection, highlighting strengths and potential limitations of current knowledge. This is followed by an introduction to the theoretical concepts of complex trauma and epistemic trust, outlining how these concepts provide an alternative framing of the reasons why parents may resist, or are reluctant to engage with, professionals. Drawing on women’s first-person accounts, we argue that high levels of maltreatment and adversity in women’s own childhoods shape adult relationships, particularly in relation to vulnerability to harm in adult lives but also mistrust of professional help. Extracts from women’s first-person accounts, chosen for their typicality against the core themes derived from the data, indicate that acts of resistance or rejection of professional help can be seen as adaptive—given women’s childhoods and relationship histories. The authors conclude that parents’ social histories need to be afforded far closer attention in child protection practice, if preventative services are to reach those with histories of developmental trauma.
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