Lancaster University: Lancaster University team lead move to improve practice when babies are separated from parents at birth

Draft guidelines, developed and designed by researchers at Lancaster University and Oxford University, to help improve practice when the state acts to safeguard a baby at birth, have been published and are being tested for feasibility in sites across England and Wales.

The draft guidelines, grounded in systematic research with eight local authority areas and corresponding health trusts in England and Wales, are published in response to a call for more national guidance for professionals working in children’s social care, health services and the courts to ensure best practice. The full peer reviewed report from the underlying research is also published today.

When the state intervenes to safeguard a baby at or close to birth, it is traumatic for birth parents and painful for professionals. When the safeguarding action results in parent and baby separation, this can be a life-changing course of action with many inherent and unresolved ethical and practice dilemmas.

The work is part of the Born into Care series, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and has been led by the Centre for Child & Family Justice Research at Lancaster University working with Rees Centre at Oxford University. The first report in the series documented escalating rates of care proceedings for babies.

The research study aimed to identify key challenges and good practice examples from different stages of the parent and baby journey – pre-birth, in maternity settings and when parents return home alone, without their new-born.

This is the first study to capture an holistic picture of compulsory state intervention at birth, from the perspectives of parents and professionals. The study included focus groups and interviews with parents who had been separated from their babies at birth, midwives, social workers, Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service workers in England and Wales (Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru), foster carers and heads of local authority legal services.

The research identified consensus among frontline practitioners and parents about what constitutes best practice when local authorities issue care proceedings at birth – but also uncovered numerous challenges, ranging from discontinuities in service provision and the allocation of workers, delays and resource constraints to risk adverse practice, shortfalls in a family-inclusive practice, insufficient professional specialism and poor inter-agency collaboration.

The draft guidelines, published by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, are based on these data, and aim to deliver better and more consistent practice.

They include a series of aspirational statements for each stage of the parents’ journey and provide examples of how these statements can be translated into best practice.

The guidelines consider how to overcome challenges at both a strategic level and in frontline practice. They also include examples of innovations from practice drawn from across England and Wales.

They are being published and tested for feasibility against a backdrop of a rising number of newborn babies being subject to care proceedings in England and Wales – with numbers more than doubling over the last decade.

The intention is for the guidelines to be used as a basis for developing local area action plans and locality specific guidelines, within the context of national guidance.

Between now and August 2022, the participating local authorities and NHS trusts are working with the team to test the feasibility of the guidelines. Findings from this feasibility study will inform a final version of the guidelines, which will be published later in 2022.

At the same time, the research team is supporting a number of other local authorities using government recovery funds to develop new approaches to work with pregnant mothers and newborn babies at risk of separation.

Further work is being undertaken to ensure the guidelines are inclusive and meet the needs of parents from minority groups, including those from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and those with learning difficulties. More work is also planned to ensure further consideration of the specific needs of fathers and kinship carers.

Parallel research is also being completed in Australia. The team are working closely with the Government Departments to explore any implications for policy and legislative implications.

Lead researcher and Co-Investigator Claire Mason, from Lancaster University, said: “We are incredibly grateful to the professionals and parents with lived experience who have worked with us on this project and are delighted to see the research report and draft guidelines being published today.

“The research has highlighted the considerable challenges within the current system and the enormous impact that separation of a baby at birth has on parents and the difficulties also faced by professionals.

“The aim of the guidelines is to improve practice to give parents the maximum support to avoid separation if possible, but, if a separation is the outcome, to ensure that practice is as sensitive as possible, to minimise the trauma to parents.”

Director of the Centre for Child & Family Justice Research at Lancaster University Professor Karen Broadhurst and Principal Investigator said: “The new draft guidelines set out a series of aspirational standards for practice and aim to address challenges in the system. We welcome the opportunity to continue to work alongside parents and practice partners to achieve change.”

Comments are closed.