Research finds number of babies entering care has increased across Wales, but notes “significant regional variations”
The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) has called for “further analysis” of variations between local authorities in relation to the number of babies entering care in Wales.
Its latest report, published this week (5 December), the NFJO identifies four main pathways for babies entering care under voluntary arrangements or an interim care order:
- Babies that enter care with the voluntary agreement of parents under s.76, and remain subject to voluntary accommodation as a family support service.
- Babies that enter care with the voluntary agreement of parents, but then become subject to care proceedings, typically within around 4 weeks.
- Babies that enter care via care proceedings and are placed in out-of-home care.
- Babies that enter care via care proceedings but are placed with parents.
In 2020/21, 353 babies entered care for the first time – an increase of 54% since 2003/4, when 230 babies entered care for the first time.
On the first pathway, the study found that 37% of babies who entered under voluntary arrangements did not progress to care proceedings.
The NFJO noted: “Findings firmly evidence the importance of s.76, as an option for local authorities and families to work together on a voluntary basis where additional help is needed, including out-of-home care, for the very youngest babies.”
On the second pathway, the study found that almost two thirds (63%) of babies initially subject to s.76 arrangements subsequently became the subject of care proceedings.
The NFJO described this as a “sizeable proportion” and noted that given that the median time to conversion was only 4.5 weeks, “this suggests that for these babies, s.76 appears to be a ‘holding’ position, en route to care proceedings”.
The study found that over time, the period between an initial voluntary agreement and care proceedings has reduced.
“[This] indicates that local authorities are heeding advice from the judiciary that they should not delay issuing care proceedings where the child’s welfare requires compulsory intervention”, said the NFJO.
On the third pathway, the report revealed that most babies who enter care via care proceedings are initially placed in out-of-home care.
At a 2-year follow-up, only 34% of babies who had entered care via care proceedings had returned home to parents or kin, or were placed at home, and 43% had either been adopted or were placed for adoption.
“Overall, babies entering care via an interim care order are less likely to return home to parents or kin compared to those who enter via voluntary arrangements”, said the NFJO.
Lastly, considering the fourth main pathway for entering care, the report noted that the issue of whether babies involved in care proceedings should be placed with their parents under a care order, has been subject to “considerable debate”.
Outlining its evidence, the NFJO revealed that 15% of babies who first entered care under an interim care order were initially placed with their parents.
At follow-up, of those who had entered care via an interim care order and who were still in care (934), a third (32%) were placed with their parents.
The NFJO theorised this may indicate that this pathway supports family preservation, adding that “further work is required to track this specific group of babies and verify this hypothesis”.
The study concluded that babies who first enter care via care proceedings, and who are not placed with their parents, have a greater chance of being permanently separated from their birth parents and extended families than babies who first enter care via voluntary arrangements.
However, the report noted that a ‘neat’ split between voluntary and compulsory intervention is not evident – “rather, there is movement between the two and, furthermore, evidence of care proceedings used as a mechanism to support and preserve ‘placement’ with parents”, said researchers.
On regional variation, the report revealed that there was “considerable” variation in the incidence rates of babies entering care for the first time between the 22 local authorities in Wales, with 7 local authorities having higher than average incidence rates, and 9 local authorities having lower than average incidence rates.
The NFJO said: “There is a link with area deprivation, with the proportion of babies entering care increasing with greater levels of deprivation, although this finding needs to be treated with caution as data on deprivation was missing for 20% of the sample.”
The report observed the need for “further analysis” on the variation between local authorities.
The study considered all babies under a year old who entered care for the first time between 1 April 2003 and 31 March 2021, a total of 6,333 children.