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Number of newborn babies in care proceedings has doubled in Wales since 2015

The number of newborn babies subject to care proceedings in Wales (per 10,000 births) more than doubled between 2015 and 2018.

In 2015, for every 10,000 births in Wales 39 newborns became the subject of care proceedings within two weeks of birth. By 2018, the rate had risen to 83 cases per 10,000 births.

In 2018, 52% of all infants (under one year old) subject to care proceedings in Wales were under two weeks old, a higher proportion than in 2015 (38%). Around half of these babies were born to mothers who had previously appeared in care proceedings concerning another child.

Whilst there are some differences in the rates of care proceedings issued for newborns across Wales, all the family court areas recorded a marked increase in the numbers of newborns in child protection cases from 2015 onwards.

Incidence rate higher in Wales than England

These findings come from the first ever analysis of newborns and infants in the family justice system in Wales, and are published today by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The research team, from the universities of Lancaster and Swansea, used valuable administrative data produced by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service in Wales (Cafcass Cymru). This report complements a study published in October 2018, which focused on newborn babies in care proceedings in England. Findings reveal some clear differences in practice, despite the fact that the two countries work to the same legal framework (the Children Act 1989).

Overall, the picture of a high proportion of infant cases issued within four weeks of birth is similar for Wales and England. However, the incidence rate is higher in Wales than England: newborns in Wales are more likely to appear in care proceedings than those in England.

Changes in final orders

In 2018, the most likely outcome for newborns at the end of care proceedings in Wales was a care order. This has changed since 2012, when the most likely outcome for newborns was to be placed for adoption. In contrast, the family courts in England make far less use of care orders at the close of care proceedings and this pattern has remained relatively stable over time. The reason for differences between England and Wales is not clear.

Further analyses using linked administrative and health data made available through the SAIL Databank at Swansea University will now be undertaken. The research team aims to understand why more newborns and infants are coming before the family courts in England and Wales and provide a far more holistic picture of what happens to these infants in the longer-term.

Lisa Harker, Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory said: “The removal of a baby into care is perhaps the most difficult decision that professionals can make to intervene in family life. This study provides an important starting point for discussions about how to ensure that more babies are able to be safely cared for by their parents and that any intervention by professionals is designed to avert potential harm.”

Professor Karen Broadhurst, Co-Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory data partnership and Professor of Social Work and Co-Director of the Centre for Child and Family Justice Research at Lancaster University said: “The changing pattern of legal orders for newborn babies and infants at the close of care proceedings in Wales is particularly striking. It appears that the family courts are moving away from using the full range of orders available under the Children Act 1989. Conversations with policy and practice colleagues are an important next step if we are to understand these patterns and differences between England and Wales”.

Professor David Ford, Co-Director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory data partnership, Professor of Informatics and Director of SAIL Databank at Swansea University said: “This ground breaking study is a wonderful example of how rarely used administrative data from a public agency can be used to shed new light on important areas of public service. The SAIL Databank, based at Swansea University, is delighted to be a part of the new FJO Data Partnership, bringing over a decade of experience of providing highly secure, responsibly governed and trustworthy data curation and linkage services to support research into family justice. This is just the beginning of a programme of research that will deliver many more important findings, whilst we also provide secure access to data to the wider research community”.