You would think, in light of recent exposés in Chile, New Zealand, Ireland and Northern Ireland, that the forcible removal of infants from their mothers and fathers in Scotland would be a matter of nation-wide interest.
On the contrary. Neither the recent report of the Independent Care Review nor the current strategic plan of the Children and the Young People’s Commissioner Scotland pay them much heed. Yet, infant removals to care make up a growing share of all entries into public care here in Scotland. Curiosity into these infant removals should be treated in our view as a civic emergency and a national priority.
In Scotland, one in every 85 children born between 2008 and 2017 was in public care at some time before their first birthday. This means the vast majority of 6,180 infants* were separated from their mothers in their first year of life. A third of these infants were under a week old. The proportion entering care in this first week of life has been increasing.
Forcible removal of a newly born baby is a most serious action by the State. These figures are shocking. They raise a basic question, one that no one here appears to be asking unlike other Anglophone countries with similar concerns. Why and why so many?
Hidden from view?
History points to child removal as protection in name and sanction in action.
This rise is seen over almost twenty years. Between 2002 and 2011 rates of entry to care increased steeply for children under 1 year, remaining fairly high for this age group thereafter. From 2008/09 to 2016/17 for children under 1 week the rate increased from 27 to 43 per 10,000 births. Given the vulnerabilities of infants the stakes could not be higher for everyone: children, parents and child welfare services.
History points to child removal as protection in name and sanction in action. It looks to have become the default position for too many infants in Scotland. Child removal can be helpful in some instances but it still brings tremendous costs for everyone involved. The success stories too often justify an approach in child welfare that introduces huge uncertainty into the lives of many children and too often brings great injury to women.
Child welfare is scarred by decades of harm caused to children in numerous public care systems – scandals of child removal, stolen generations, sexual and physical abuse, mass adoption, forced migration, county lines, and most recently high levels of infant mortality exposed by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland. What passes for playing safe to wider society too often hides the costs for child and mother.
Family fragmentation by separating young children from parents and siblings has grown in Scottish child welfare practice chiefly for under threes.
‘Infant removal looks to have become institutionalised as a ‘go to’ course of action.’
Disruption of the mother-child bond is not trivial at any time but especially so in the first years of life when the need for stability is at its greatest. This has been long known. In 1951 the World Health Organisation outlined the damage caused to children by being ‘posted, like parcels, from one mother-figure to another’ (https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/40724).
Scottish data shows there is still no soft landing for young children separated from their mothers. During the first episode of care less than half the children were found to have a single placement (46%). For those entering care under one week old this percentage is lower (33%).
Mitigating separation in early childhood depends on what happens next. The odds of a better life for any child coming into care are more akin to a lottery than conventional wisdom might suggest. Adoption and foster care are not failsafe remedies – even for newborns. Where newborns end up is far from guaranteed: by age five, only a quarter are with parents, less than half are adopted (43%) and more than ten per cent remain looked after in foster care (11%). These decisions all provoke consequences in the present and for the future. Infant removal looks to have become institutionalised as a ‘go to’ course of action. This raises uncomfortable questions. Are we sure such early separation from parents can be justified given the vagaries of the care system, the vulnerabilities of adoption, and the long history of poor outcomes for children in care?
There is a hidden cost of early separation of mother and child: the impact on the women. Their health and wellbeing are often affected for years to come. We know this from research, from inquiries, films and literature. Yet we continue down a path that raises the stakes for the women’s future motherhood. For some this will mean the loss of future children. In turn, infants removed at birth may come to find their own capacity for parenting scrutinised if this early separation comes to light.
In public imagination mothers involved with child welfare too often become one-dimensional, stick figures, who can be set aside by sowing the seeds of mistrust in their mothering. A stereotype of irresponsibility based on drugs, alcohol and violent partners all paint a picture of a dangerous motherhood. This unflattering portrait permits a devaluation of the ties between mother and child, paving the way for removal as first choice rather than last resort. The women are real people weathering real lives. Their standpoints become lost. Their commitment to their children is undervalued. Their capacities to contend with hardship and sometimes precarious existence go unacknowledged. Too readily infant removal can become a strategy by the State to address child poverty. Children from poor households have ever been the majority of children in care.
What might be done?
- Let’s help all parents raise their own children.
- Provide high quality, state of the art, national kindergarten service for all pre-school children.
Despite a plethora of policies about mothers and infants, and a national health visiting programme, infants continue to be taken away from their mothers. How can we turn this around? What are some options to prevent a future reckoning in years to come.
First, we should head towards practical, hands-on, stigma-free, support, pre- and post-birth, for all mothers and their babies. Let’s help all parents raise their own children. We don’t hesitate to provide domestic based services for older citizens according to their needs, so why can’t we do the same for our youngest citizens?The state should be obliged to have offered this support before breaking up families. After all, it’s been done before in Scotland – recognising the needs of expectant mothers and mothers lying-in. It should be offered on such a scale to include all children in the first year of life. This could be backed up by financial support to enable local residents to develop what would work for families in their area.
Second, as these infants grow up: replace the surfeit of policy rhetoric with practical action to implement one new key universal policy development benefitting every child in Scotland. We suggest a high quality, state of the art, national kindergarten service for all pre-school children. A high return, low risk strategy that could do no harm. It would be an investment for the common good. A non-stigmatising benefit for the development and wellbeing of all children. And with the added bonus for parental engagement on a level playing field.
We should see the rise in infant removals as a signal of something deeply amiss in how the State is approaching families. In Scotland more families than ever are living a precarious existence. National progress will not be advanced by reliance on infant removals. The history of child welfare attests to the harm this causes. Time is of the essence, acting now must be a national priority. Otherwise we will continue to fail mothers and babies
*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.
Featured image: Something new, image of new born baby by Maria:CC BY-NC 2.0