Born into care in Scotland: circumstances, recurrence and pathways

The report was commissioned as it is important to understand more about the circumstances in which removal of babies shortly after birth takes place in Scotland, and the work undertaken with parents to prevent separation where possible, and the children’s pathways and permanence outcomes.

1. Introduction

Removal of a baby at, or near, birth is probably the most difficult decision that professionals can make to intervene in family life and is highly distressing for birth mothers, birth fathers and wider family networks. It is important to understand more about the circumstances in which removal of babies shortly after birth takes place in Scotland, including the significance of pre-birth assessments, the work undertaken with parents to prevent separation where possible, and children's pathways and permanence outcomes.

The Promise, the report from Scotland's Independent Care Review published in February 2020, stated "it is babies, infants and young children who are most likely to be removed from their families. It is hard for decision makers to hear and properly listen to their voices. Judgments about the adequacy of their care are made by others." (Independent Care Review, 2020, p52). In this context, it is important to have an accurate picture of how many newborns and infants become looked after away from home, and in what circumstances.

Using data collected by the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA), this report provides new evidence about newborn babies and infants who become looked after away from home[1] on a Compulsory Supervision Order (CSO) via the Children's Hearings System (CHS).

The aims of this study were to investigate:

  • the scale and trends in newborns and infants becoming looked after away from home via the Children's Hearings System in Scotland, including area-level variations and the association with levels of deprivation;
  • how these trends compare with the rates of infants and newborns entering compulsory care through care proceedings in England and Wales;
  • the health characteristics of infants looked after away from home, including experience of substance withdrawal at birth;
  • the family circumstances and difficulties prior to infants becoming looked after, including poverty and housing problems, domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental health difficulties;
  • whether mothers and fathers had experience of other children being looked after away from home;
  • families' involvement with services and pre-birth planning;
  • whether infants were placed into care with their brothers and sisters;
  • the pathways of infants into and through the Children's Hearings System, including permanence outcomes.

In seeking a greater understanding of the situation regarding infants becoming looked after away from home in Scotland on compulsory measures, comparison across the four nations of the UK is important. This report builds on, and is comparable with earlier work in the Born into Care series, designed and delivered for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, and led by Professor Karen Broadhurst. This body of research has illuminated the volume and proportion of infants and newborns subject to compulsory removal via care proceedings[2] in the family courts in England (Broadhurst et al., 2018) and Wales (Alrouh et al., 2019), updated in 2021 (Pattinson et al., 2021).[3]

In England and Wales, children can also become accommodated by the state by way of parental agreement rather than court order (under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 in England, and under Section 76 of the Social Services and Well-being Act in Wales). Similarly, children in Scotland can become looked after under what are commonly referred to as 'voluntary' measures (under Section 25 of the Children (Scotland) 1995 Act). SCRA does not have involvement in such cases, unless there is a subsequent referral to the Children's Reporter, or a Child Protection Order (CPO) made by the Sheriff Court (which triggers a Children's Hearing).

Previous research in Scotland (Raab et al., 2020) used data on all children looked after in Scotland (Children Looked After Statistics, CLAS data) to describe the number of infants and newborns entering care, including those on 'voluntary' arrangements, those looked after away from home on a CSO, and those looked after at home on CSO. Through the use of the SCRA data, the current report focuses on the use of compulsory measures, thus enabling greater comparison with the earlier reports in the Born into Care series (Alrouh et al., 2019; Broadhurst et al., 2018; Pattinson et al., 2021).

The longitudinal Permanently Progressing? project[4] also uses CLAS data (in addition to surveys and qualitative interviews) to track the progress and outcomes of a cohort of 1,836 children who became looked after at or away from home in Scotland in 2012/13 when they were aged five or under. In that study, nearly half (46%) of the children who were looked after away from home were less than a year old when they were first accommodated, with 18% less than seven days old (Biehal et al., 2019). Another study in Scotland (Woods and Henderson, 2018) found that the proportion of children on CSOs before the age of three who entered out of home care at birth had increased significantly between 2003 and 2013. A third (33%) of the cohort born in 2013 were placed with foster or kinship carers at birth, compared with only 9% of those born in 2003.

One of the limitations of the administrative CLAS data is that it is recorded at the child level, with no information about parents collected, nor the ability to link data on brothers and sisters. Whilst the administrative data recorded by SCRA is child-focussed, details of others within a case (including siblings and parents) are recorded in the case files. Although not easily accessible at a population-level, through an audit of a sample of case files we were able to move beyond the administrative data to gain a richer understanding of the family circumstances in which infant removals take place, and the pathways and permanence outcomes for children involved.

Previous research has demonstrated that many looked after children greatly value their relationships with siblings (Sinclair et al., 2005), yet within Scotland, most children in out of home care have been found to have been separated from one or more biological siblings, with implications at the time and throughout their life (Jones and Henderson, 2017; Kosonen, 1996). In the current study, we collected information on whether the infants in the sample were known to have any brothers or sisters, and whether they were placed with them when first looked after away from home and two years later. We also used this information in a different way, to establish whether the parents of the infants in the sample had other children, and whether any of these had been removed from their care, to build a picture of recurrence, or repeat removals, for both mothers and fathers. There is significant concern, across the UK and internationally, about parents who experience repeat court-ordered removal of children from their care (see Broadhurst et al., 2015; Bedston et al., 2019). Understanding more about the experiences and outcomes, of children and their parents, within the Scottish context is critical, and has important policy and practice implications.



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