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What Albert Square’s teen pregnancy story can tell us about babies born into care

Published: 11th July 2023

3 minute read

Soapland rarely shows social workers and the families they are working with in a positive light. Social workers are either a hostile presence swooping in to remove children from struggling families or are shown to be hoodwinked by parents who are neglectful or worse. Always, the two are at odds with each other. But last week on EastEnders, they showed things a little differently.

At the age of just 12, Lily Slater – daughter of Walford legend Stacey – finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Due to concerns about her ability to raise a child, social workers have become involved. They suggest a family group conference, bringing together Lily and her young boyfriend’s families. To work out how best to go forward without the baby being taken into the care of a stranger or adopted.

Most people will not have heard of a family group conference, before Eastenders. It’s an innovative approach that involves a trained coordinator working with the family to help them understand why social workers are worried about a child. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and neighbours get together – alongside the parents – to take the lead in working out a plan for the child. This might mean agreeing how they can provide extra support to help the parents so the child can stay living safely at home. Or it might be working out who in the family can look after the children instead, known as kinship care.

Lily is lucky enough to have a wide and supportive family and community on Albert Square to support her in bringing up the baby. That includes her mum, Stacey, and father Ricky Branning’s family. Given the drama of everyday life in Walford, a family group conference would be the perfect setting to remind such a fractious bunch to put the interests of the baby first.

A new study published by Foundations in the last few weeks shows that family group conferences can reduce the numbers of children taken into care. That’s more children remaining connected to their roots and able to live safely and thrive within their family.

Lily Slater’s pregnancy has sparked conversations on the challenges faced by young parents

Research shows that the number of new-born babies subject to care proceedings has more than doubled over the past 16 years. Most of these babies will go into care or be adopted. Currently, too few pregnant women are offered a family group conference. Despite it being proven they can prevent the heartbreaking step of removing babies from their mothers at birth.

Unfortunately, if Lily and her family weren’t living on Albert Square, they might not receive the support they need to keep the baby at home. As well as family group conferences not being offered everywhere, there is a postcode lottery in the support available to pregnant mums. Things are particularly bad in the North East with the highest numbers of babies ‘born into care’.

We can and must do better. Starting with investment in early support services so families can get help before difficulties turn into a crisis. And when social workers are worried about a child, every family should be offered a family group conference, not just those on Albert Square.

Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group, and Claire Mason, lead researcher on the Born into Care study, Lancaster University

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