The NSPCC research study, All Babies Count, is to be welcomed for reminding us that nearly half of serious case reviews concern babies under the age of one year and that babies are eight times more likely to be killed by their carers than older children.
The report also highlights the ‘toxic trio’ of parental mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence as being important risk factors. The authors estimate that nearly 200,000 babies in the UK are at high risk in this way.
Also to be welcomed is the NSPCC’s response to the research, which will involve education programmes, derived from Australian and US models, with the aim of reaching parents of 80,000 newly born babies over a two year period.
From the perspective of child protection practice, rather than preventative campaigns, the research seems to me to imply an ever-stronger focus on babies. It is all too easy to operate with an optimistic assumption that a parent will improve her or his parenting abilities over time, or that the causes of an early abusive event can be successfully addressed or the consequences mitigated, but the sad truth is that the fragility of very young children means that during the first two years of life there is often little or no room for manoeurve . And a child who experiences abuse and neglect at this age will suffer long-term damage that is often difficult to repair.
I believe child protection social workers need to be experts in the health and welfare of babies. And I believe that child protection services need to be designed differently to meet the needs of different groups. Babies and older children require quite different approaches. But a one-size-fits-all approach has been reinforced by the widespread adoption of standardising procedures that restrict the social worker’s ability to tailor services to the needs of a particular child. That can mean that the special needs of babies are often marginalised or neglected, especially where there are older children in the same family.