Born into care: infants becoming looked after in Scotland – rates, recurrence and outcomes

Project Dates

November 2020 – March 2022


Scottish Government

Project Summary

The removal of a child, particularly an infant, into care is perhaps the most difficult and brutal decision that professionals can make to intervene in family life, and has implications for children, families, professionals and the state. It is important to understand more about the circumstances in which removal of babies shortly after birth takes place in Scotland, including the significance of pre-birth assessments, the work undertaken with parents to prevent separation where possible, and children’s pathways and permanence outcomes.

This research builds on earlier work in the Born into Care series by Professor Karen Broadhurst and colleagues, which illuminated the volume and proportion of infants and newborns subject to care proceedings in the family courts in England (Broadhurst et al., 2018) and Wales (Alrouh et al., 2019), updated in 2021 (Pattinson et al., 2021).

The aims of this study were to investigate:

  • the scale and trends in newborns and infants becoming looked after away from home via the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland, including area-level variations and the association with levels of deprivation;
  • how these trends compare with the rates of infants and newborns entering compulsory care through care proceedings in England and Wales;
  • the health characteristics of infants looked after away from home, including experience of substance withdrawal at birth;
  • the family circumstances and difficulties prior to infants becoming looked after, including poverty and housing problems, domestic abuse, parental substance misuse and mental health difficulties;
  • whether mothers and fathers had experience of other children being looked after away from home;
  • families’ involvement with services and pre-birth planning;
  • whether infants were placed into care with their brothers and sisters;
  • the pathways of infants into and through the Children’s Hearings System, including permanence outcomes.

The study used administrative data held by Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) about all children looked after away from home via the Children’s Hearings System in Scotland.  It also used information recorded in the case files for a sample of 70 infants, to provide more detail on their family backgrounds, experiences and pathways.


The research found that only one in five infants taken into care in Scotland who had older brothers or sisters were initially placed with them.  The Promise, the report of the Independent Care Review set up by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, and published in 2020, states that where living with their families is not possible, children need to be placed with their brothers and sisters. Although on the whole families were known to services before their birth, and thus their arrival was expected, most infants were not placed with their older brothers and sisters. Two years later, only a third of children were living with a brother or sister.

The study also explored the circumstances of families where infants were removed, uncovering complex needs relating to poverty and housing problems, mental health, substance misuse, domestic abuse and offending histories.  Researchers also found that many of the parents were recorded as having difficult and disrupted childhoods themselves, with significant proportions having experienced abuse or neglect.  Over a third (37%) of mothers and a quarter (24%) of fathers were care experienced.

Around a third of parents did not have any older children. But the study found that this was not the first child who had become looked after away from home for many of the parents.  Nine out of ten of the mothers known to have older children had at least one child previously removed, with one in five having had three or more children taken into care.  Although less information was recorded for fathers, over half (56%) of those with older children were known to have had a previous child removed from their care.

The use of population-level data by this study also enabled important comparisons with previous research by the Lancaster team on compulsory care proceedings in England and Wales. In Scotland, 20% of all children who entered care via the Children’s Hearings System were infants under a year old. This is a lower proportion than other parts of the UK. In Wales, 30% of all children entering care proceedings between 2011 and 2018 were under a year old, while in England, this was 27% (between 2007/08 and 2016/17). Between 2013/14 and 2019/20, the proportion of infants in Scotland who became looked after away from home as newborns (less than seven days old) was fairly stable at around a third. By comparison, in England and Wales the proportion of infants who entered care proceedings as newborns was higher, and showed an upward trend across the period – from 43% to 51% in England, and from 40% to 51% in Wales.


Cusworth, L., Hooper, J., Henderson, G., Whincup, H. and Broadhurst, K. (2022) Born into care in Scotland: circumstances, recurrence and pathways, Edinburgh, Scottish Government. (available here)

Cusworth, L. and Whincup, H. (2024) Born into care in Scotland, Iriss Insight 76. Glasgow, Iriss. (available here)

Research Team

Dr Linda Cusworth (PI)

Jade Hooper (Research Associate)

Professor Karen Broadhurst

Dr Gillian Henderson (Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration)  

Dr Helen Whincup (University of Stirling)

External Collaborators

Scottish Children's Reporter Administration

University of Stirling


For further information, please contact: Dr Linda Cusworth (

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