Social workers know that babies are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Early assessment, intervention and any support work that can be performed during the antenatal period can help minimise the potential risk of harm. When there are concerns about unborn babies, clear and regular communication is essential between social workers, childcare professionals and the parents and their extended family.
When the biological father of a baby in unknown, a legal DNA paternity test would need to be performed after the baby has been born. However, the extra months during the antenatal period could be essential in ensuring that the appropriate support is in place to best protect the baby following the birth. With prenatal paternity testing, the baby’s biological father can be established as early as 5 weeks after conception (or 7 weeks after the last period). Most importantly, a prenatal paternity test can avoid delay when initiating public law care proceedings such as pre-proceedings, care or supervision proceedings in line with the Public Law Outline (PLO).
Time is of the essence when it comes to pre-proceedings
If a local authority is worried about a mother and they want to consider starting proceedings after birth, the pre-proceedings stage is the time to get help and support in place. All agencies should be involved in the development of a safeguarding pre-birth risk assessment (usually completed at least 8–12 weeks before the expected delivery date).
Recommending the removal of a baby from their family is a massive upheaval and probably the biggest decision that a social worker can make. However, this process can be made even more upsetting by taking longer than needed. After the baby is born, it will usually remain in hospital for about a week until an interim carer can be found. There will then be further delays until a foster carer can be put in place.
Knowing the biological father in early pregnancy, and therefore being able to make decisions earlier on, means that:
- Babies who may be at risk of significant harm can be identified sooner, and plans can be developed to safeguard them.
- There is more time to develop a good working relationship with both the mother and father during the pregnancy, especially where there are concerns.
- Legal permanence can be secured in a timely manner. The children are not left ‘in limbo’ while arrangements are made for them; they remain at the centre of social workers’ thinking and action.
- Strong interventions can be implemented sooner. Effective help and support enable parents to make positive changes. Vulnerable parents can be offered assistance earlier, allowing them the best opportunity to parent their child safely and effectively. Proceedings can be halted if sufficient change has been made.
- Local authorities can perform assessments early in the process, even before they issue the letter of proceedings. This includes carrying out ‘viability assessments’ on other family members to see if they are able to look after the child in the long term. This can also avoid children waiting in foster care in the interim.
- Parents have more time to get legal advice relating to the pre-birth assessments, and the proposals for after the baby is born.
Avoid delays with prenatal paternity tests
A baby’s biological father can be established as early as 7 weeks’ gestation with the prenatal paternity test. The non-invasive test is 100% safe to the unborn child and works by analysing the baby’s DNA within the mother’s bloodstream. The mother needs to provide a blood sample. The alleged father’s sample is obtained by using a mouth swab to collect DNA from his cheek cells. Samples from up to three alleged fathers can be analysed in each prenatal paternity test.
More information and FAQs on prenatal paternity tests can be read in our Learning Centre article.
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