Newborn babies taken into care

Almost 17,000 newborn babies taken into care in England in past nine years

Many infants taken from their mothers in hospital within hours or days of delivery

By: Amelia Hill  The Guardian 12 October 2018

The number of newborn babies removed from their parents in care proceedings in England has increased by 136% in the past nine years, according to a report.

Evidence published on Wednesday has revealed that 2,447 newborns were subject to care proceedings within one week of birth from 2016 to 2017, compared with 1,039 in 2007-08. Over the nine-year period, a total of 16,849 newborns were subject to care proceedings.

The research also found that almost a third – 32% – of all infants coming before the courts in care proceedings did so as newborns in 2007-08. By 2017-18, this proportion had risen to 42%.

Newborns have been invisible in national data before this report: there are no figures on infants subject to care proceedings, despite government policy emphasising the developmental importance of children in this age group. National data reports only on the single category of infants “aged less than one year”.

The study was led by Prof Karen Broadhurst, the director of the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research, who first highlighted the dramatic rise in newborns taken into care in 2015.

She said: “The lack of data is surprising, given the controversy that surrounds compulsory action at birth, which will often lead to infant removals within hours or days of delivery – whether such decisions are proportionate or fair – after care for the mother. This is a hugely contentious issue, with published family court judgments evidencing the legal and procedural challenges.”

The report has been produced by the development team working to establish the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, due to launch in spring 2019.

By far the largest proportion of infants coming before the courts fell into the newborns category. If the categories “newborns” and “one to three weeks” are combined, proceedings were being issued in less than four weeks from birth for at least 50% of all infants in the sample.

The evidence shows that although an increase is evident across all infant age bands, the greatest average year-on-year change is for infants who are newborns. The rate for newborns is 11% compared with a range of 4% to 7% for all other infant age bands.

Previous work from Lancaster University involving interviews with 72 birth mothers found distressing accounts of removals at birth, including a lack of planning and women only meeting foster carers after a baby’s birth. Broadhurst said none of this was intentional, but indicated that questions about how newborn removals are managed needed to be given greater priority in national policy and statutory practice guidance.

“A major limitation in national practice guidance is that there is barely any reference to newborn removals – local area guidance has filled this gap, but it is highly variable,” she said. “Now that we know that cases of newborns in care proceedings are far from unusual – in fact, 42% of all infant cases are issued at birth – we need to develop national guidelines that stipulate standards for care for mother and baby in these circumstances.

“We also need to examine why infants appear to have such an unequal chance of appearing before the courts as newborns across England,” she added.

Broadhurst added that the newborns would have been taken from their mothers while they were still in hospital. About half of the mothers – 47% – had already had older children taken into care.

The report questions whether, in first-time cases, sufficient time is taken to establish a claim of likely significant harm to the child. “For infants whose family is new to the court, pregnancy provides only a short window for the assessment of parenting capacity and support for change,” the report concludes.

The study also showed significant variation between different regions, with rates for Yorkshire and the Humber more than double those for London over the eight-year period.

Almost all the cases identified by local authorities resulted in a care order being issued by a judge and the baby ultimately being removed – most for adoption, others to foster care or extended family. Only 14% stayed with their birth parents.

Sir James Munby, who has recently retired as the president of the family division of the high court, welcomed the research but said more work needed to be done.

He said the regional variations identified in the data were important, as there appeared to be “significant differences” between the way courts and local authorities behaved, despite similar demographics or levels of deprivation.

The findings echo those of Prof Andrew Bilson, who found a child’s chances of being placed for adoption varied sharply by local authority.

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See also: Why the secrecy around babies being taken into care?

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