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13 December 2010 | PR 10/186

Needs of infants suffering abuse come second to those of parents

The needs of children suffering from abuse including chronic, long term neglect are overlooked in the drive by professionals to ensure the parents’ rights are properly respected and families are kept together, a Loughborough University report highlights.

The University’s Centre for Child and Family research has conducted a study to trace the decision-making process influencing the life pathways of a sample of very young children identified as suffering or likely to suffer from harm before their first birthdays. The aim is to understand how decisions are reached and their consequences, the weight given to evidence about risk and protective factors and the role participants, including birth parents, play in the decision-making process.

The report has far-reaching implications for current policy and practice with a key recommendation to reduce delays in decision-making for very young children. Professor Harriet Ward who led the study explains: “Currently the best practice is to keep the children with their birth parents and work with them to overcome their problems. We are seeing birth parents being given chance after chance to change but in the meantime these infants are suffering significant harm and the longer the process goes on the greater the damage.”

Some birth parents are able to overcome major adversities such as substance misuse, mental health problems and domestic violence and provide a nurturing home within a reasonable timescale. About a third of the birth parents who took part in the study succeeded in doing this, often against considerable odds. But all of those who managed to make significant and lasting changes did so before the baby was six months old, and most did so in the pregnancy stages. For some of these parents the birth of the baby was the catalyst.

However, 43 per cent of the children who took part in the study and remained with their birth families, were considered to be at continuing risk of significant harm at the age of three from parents whose situation remained unchanged or had deteriorated.

Professor Ward continues: “The consequences for the children are that by their third birthdays over half of those who had no recognised medical condition were displaying developmental delay or showing signs of significant behavioural difficulties, most prominently aggression and speech problems.

“Almost all of the initial decisions made by practitioners were temporary, taking an average of 14 months for definitive decisions to be made, and a further six months for these to be realised. Adoption orders often took longer and many had not been completed by the time the children were three. The wellbeing of over half of the children who were permanently separated was doubly jeopardised, owing to late separation from an abusive birth family, followed by the disruption of a close attachment with an interim carer when they entered a permanent placement.”

Following interviews with social workers, the study found that child development is only a small part of training and one that is quickly forgotten. Some of the many professionals involved demonstrated little understanding of infant attachments, the impact of maltreatment on long-term wellbeing, or of how delayed decisions undermine children’s life chances. In addition no formal paediatric assessments took place.

Professor Ward added: “A major cause of the delays was specialist parenting assessments made by psychologists, psychiatrists or independent social workers. All recommendations were followed with two thirds advising that children should remain with their birth parents, although subsequently over half of these children had to be removed from the parental home. Further delays were caused by assessments of numerous extended family members as potential carers, sometimes regardless of their proven inability to care for a child. Some of the relatives had extensive history’s of offending and their own children had had very poor outcomes. Many family placements were nearing breakdown at the end of the study.”

The decision to separate children from their parents goes against the grain for all of those involved. However, the study raises considerable questions concerning the accepted threshold for significant harm, particularly where neglect and/or emotional abuse are the key issues. While none of the infants participating died, three were left in extremely dangerous situations and the health and safety of many was seriously compromised.

The study recommends that if the welfare of the child is the priority then both professionals and policy makers need to ask much more stringent questions about what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable levels of parenting.


For all media enquiries contact:

Debbie Hughes
Senior PR Officer
Loughborough University
T: 01509 228697
E: D.L.Hughes@lboro.ac.uk 

Notes for editors:

  1. Interviews: Professor Harriet Ward is available for interview. Please contact the Public Relations Office on 01509 228697.

  2. For a full copy of the report please follow the link below:

  3. The study took place in 10 local authorities and focussed on a sample of 57 children who were the subject of a core assessment, section 47 enquiry or became looked after before their first birthdays; 43 were followed until they were three.

    The report was commissioned before the new UK Government took office on 11 May 2010 and may not reflect current Government policy.

    At least 20 mothers and an unknown number of fathers had already been permanently separated from at least one older child. Many of the parents were also struggling with mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Few had supportive partners, friends or family members. Neighbourhood and housing problems compounded parents’ problems.

    By the time they were three, 28 children were living with a birth parent and 15 were permanently placed away from the home, although not all were adequately safeguarded.

    Parent who did succeed in change predominantly did so in the first six months after the infant’s birth.

  4. Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

    It was awarded the coveted Sunday Times University of the Year 2008-09 title, and is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in national newspaper league tables. In the 2010 National Student Survey, Loughborough was voted one of the top universities in the UK, and has topped the Times Higher Education league for the UK’s Best Student Experience every year since the poll's inception in 2006. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, the University has been awarded six Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

    Loughborough is also the UK’s premier university for sport. It has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world and is home to some of the country’s leading coaches, sports scientists and support staff. It also has the country’s largest concentration of world-class training facilities across a wide range of sports.

    It is a member of the 1994 Group of 19 leading research-intensive universities. The Group was established in 1994 to promote excellence in university research and teaching. Each member undertakes diverse and high-quality research, while ensuring excellent levels of teaching and student experience.

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