The first ever national study of newborns in England has revealed that the number of babies taken into care who are less than one week old, has more than doubled in a decade. In most instances, babies would have been taken from their mothers while still in hospital.

The research, which was carried out by Professor Karen Broadhurst, on behalf of the Nuffield Foundation, and which used data supplied by CAFCASS, found that care proceedings were issued for 1,039 newborns in 2007/8, (32% of all cases involving an infant age under 1 year). However, this number had more than doubled at 2,447 newborns (42% of all infant cases), by 2017.

The study also reveals marked differences in relation to the rates of babies being taking into care across regions in England. These variations have become a common feature of children’s social work practice across the country.

Despite the differences across regions, the study noticed an overall increase in the number of babies taken into care, nationwide.

The researchers now want to look at possible causes for removal and geographical fluctuations, who suspect that deprivation may be an underlying cause. This premise however, is not right. Families who experience poverty tend to ask their local councils for help, which is a strong indication that they are not only aware of the issues they face but understand that their children’s needs are not being met, and crucially, want to actively address those gaps. By contrast, vulnerable families are those who are suffering with any number of difficulties and are unable to identify and put their children’s needs first. Those families represent a very small percentage of the population, and so the astounding figures in this report are clearly disproportionate to the number of mothers and fathers who genuinely can’t look after their children. This also suggests that the large number of removals are not based on a lack of capacity to parent, but the system’s now widely documented flaws.

Those flaws include an ingrained culture which treats families asking for help like second class citizens, a system geared towards removal to fuel the adoption and fostering sectors, two of only a small number of initiatives inside the child protection sector still offering lucrative profit margins, and knee jerk reactions to budget cuts leading to councils going for the cheapest option every time, which usually translates into councils removing children from parents rather than offering support which could avoid tearing families apart in the first place. Poverty then, is not a root cause of child neglect and abuse, but a convenient gateway through which cash strapped councils can fund themselves.

The report has also reignited the debate on the family justice system’s use of the ‘risk of significant harm’ threshold, which judges and social workers currently use to decide whether or not to remove children from parents. The threshold has no established working definition, medical guidelines or official legal definition, instead allowing child protection professionals and judges to work from a rough checklist, using their own discretion, which some argue is far too wide for such a serious measure.

Some key stats and facts from the report:

  • Of those children less than one-year-old subject to care proceedings, 42% of cases concerned newborns. (2016/2017)
  • Almost every case identified by local authorities led to a care order being issued by a judge with most children being put up for adoption, foster care or extended family. Only 14% of children stayed with their birth parents
  • 47% of mothers had already had older children taken into care

You can read a summary of the report here.

The Nuffield Foundation will be working on a new project through their Family Justice Observatory, called ‘Infants in the family justice system’, which will be launched in 2019.