Newborn babies in peril of abuse or neglect by ‘toxic trio’ parents
One in four babies at risk of abuse by being born into homes beset by domestic violence, mental health or drug problems
One in four babies is at risk of being killed or abused by being born into homes beset by domestic violence, mental health and dependency problems. Photograph: Lisa Spindler/Getty Images
At least one newborn baby in four is at high risk of death or abuse because one or both parents are beset by a “toxic trio” of domestic violence, mental health difficulties or substance dependency, according to the NSPCC, the only non-governmental body with statutory power to take children into care.
The charity calculates 198,000 babies in the UK are at high risk in a home beset by abuse, addictions and mental distress. The latter was by far the biggest risk, with 144,000 babies under a year old living with a parent with mental health issues. More than 93,000 babies have a problem drinker as one parent, while 50,000 are with one of their parents having used an “illegal drug” in the past year.
Though reasons for violence and abuse are complex, risk of homicide is greatest in a child’s first three months. The NSPCC report, All Babies Count, says the perpetrators are “almost always parents”.
The charity is starting an education drive aimed at reaching parents of 80,000 newborns over two years in 12 hospitals, using work in the US which cut hospital admissions by 40%. It is also testing an Australian model of teaching early parenting that cut risk of child harm for drug addicted parents.
A child’s “frailty and total dependence” have to be taken into account when judging what constitutes neglect or violence, said the charity, but its analysis of 130 serious case reviews (investigating the death of a child) showed almost 75% had one or more of a “toxic trio” in a parent of mental illness, substance misuse, and domestic abuse as a significant factor. Maltreatment risk, especially neglect, is much higher in “trio” than in “normal” families”; the worst outcome is non-accidental head injury (NAHI), or “baby shaking syndrome”, the most common cause of death or long term disability in such cases.
The report also says such conditions mean babies’ life chances are worse for future learning, behaviour and health. In New Zealand a study found that, at age 15, a child with at least one problem-drinking parent was more likely to have “mood disorders, depression, anxiety, substance misuse and behaviour problems”.
The government welcomed the campaign and its “innovative services”. Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, said: “At birth, 25% of a child’s brain is formed, but already by the age of three, it is 80% formed. So intervening early to prevent harm is absolutely crucial.”