Too many infants in care? Too little support to parents?

6 Apr, 2021

by Janice McGhee and Lorraine Waterhouse

The World Health Organisation long ago spoke a truth – ‘If a community values its children it must cherish their parents’.

A recent report on children in care in Scotland draws attention to the serious problem of the removal of infants from their parents either at birth or soon thereafter. Most reports on children in care concentrate on the implications for the child and rightly so. We think the findings of the report tell us something further – that more needs to be done to support parents to raise their own children where ever possible. This is why.

First, how many infants come into care? Between 2008 and 2017 one in every 85 babies born in Scotland was in public care at some time before their first birthday. One third of infants entered care in their first week of life. This represents 6,180 infants over an eight year period.* This information can be found in the report ‘Infants Born into Care in Scotland‘(https://www.scadr.ac.uk/news-and-events/news-new-report-infants-born-care-scotland). 

Second, what happens to children in care?  The report finds that many infants move around in placements. This can be seen by looking at the first episode of care. Less than half of all the infants entering care were found to have a single placement (46%). The very youngest, those entering care under one week, also move around – only a third (33%) were found to have a single placement. These are an awful lot of changes in care for infants.

Third, where are the children by the time they are five years old? The very youngest babies, less than one week old, are more likely to be adopted. Those starting care later in the first year are more likely to be reunited with their parents or with relatives or friend. This shows how important age on first entry to care is for the infants and their families.

All of this suggests something is seriously amiss in child welfare in Scotland. Rather than bringing security for the child, early removal brings uncertainty and instability for child and parents. Research across a number of countries finds maternal mental health and well-being are seriously affected by the compulsory removal of a child into care.

Care leavers seem especially vulnerable to having a child removed. A study of adoption in Wales found that more than a quarter of birth mothers (27%) and a fifth (19%) of birth fathers with children placed for adoption were themselves care leavers. The consequences for any child entering care looks to reach down generations.

In our opinion there is a need to change direction to help more parents in the upbringing of their infants. Studies over many years also find that the families most likely to see their children removed into care are surviving in precarious housing and financial circumstances.  The most straightforward route is to provide adequate financial and practical support in the first few years. And to do this in ways that reach out to parents in a spirit of – how can we help?

Herein lies the challenge for child welfare in Scotland. We need to apply a brake on the wheels to prevent the admission of infants into care. To do this we need to heed the truth spoken by the World Health Organisation that to value our children we must cherish their parents. Otherwise their reserves will wear thin.

Removing a child from their parents at birth or shortly thereafter should always be a last resort. And it should neither happen by default nor without every help and support first to be offered and made available. It should never happen because we have become accustomed to it or because it has slipped below the radar of society. The influence of social and economic factors is extremely important. So too is the morale of parents who need support to build confidence in raising their children from birth onwards. The extraordinary number of infant removals in Scotland speaks to a civic failure of imagination towards our fellow and future citizens. As a first step let us face the fact of infant removal and then resolve to find ways to end this practice.

*For 14% of infants under one year the first placement in care was with parents; this was less than 2% for babies starting care under one week.