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COMMUNITY CARE LIVEMAY 16 2012I’m delighted to be here today to speak to you, professionalsinvolved and interested in adoption and those at the real front lineof the care of children who cannot live with their birth parents: theadopters, the foster carers and the kinship carers who are heretoday.Some of you will know that I am the, so called, Adoption Czar. Asilly title – and not one which appears anywhere in my contract –but one loved by the Press. But my interest in adoption did notstart last year when Tim Loughton and Michael Gove asked me tobecome their advisor on adoption.So I want this afternoon, if I may, to speak a little about my historyand why, over the last few years, I have become troubled by thedemise of adoption and convinced of the urgent need for numbersto increase and for adoptions to be completed more speedily.I am not,and never have been a Social Worker. But you cannotwork with offenders, and particularly offenders in prison, and fortwenty-three years, without absorbing a great deal about thereality of disadvantage in the UK and of the consequences ofneglect in early childhood specifically.So, when I left the Home Office in 2005, after having led the PrisonService for seven years, I carried with me the reality I faced everytime I visited a prison about the link between being in care andending up inside.My time at Barnardo’s: not perhaps the most important butcertainly the six happiest years of my working life – and where Iworked with five thousand outstanding social workers – led me tounderstand: from meeting families; talking to staff; and readingthe research – not least by Julie Selwyn who speaks next - that thethousands of young people I met in prison had not been propelledthere by their experience of being in care but by the neglect they
suffered before care. My time at Barnardo’s led me to understandthat we have a system which has been too optimistic about thecapacity of inadequate parents to become good enough parents;that we have left children in neglect too long; and we have toooften returned children home from care to suffer further neglect.These were the factsat the core of my growing conviction atBarnardo’s that more of those children needed the permanencethat adoption brings and the reason for my dismay at seeingadoption numbers declining by almost a fifth over the last decade.A Few MythsBut, I think I shall start today with puncturing a few myths. In thelast few months I have become somewhat resigned to having todeal with comments and debate in the Press about things I haveneither said, nor believe. I know that my report on adoption forThe Times last year was published behind the so-called pay wall.But having to pay the princely sum of £1 to access it is not reallyany excuse for those who opine so authoritatively, and often soangrily, about things I have not said.So, for the record, and just to deal with inaccuracies in theGuardian alone, I have never suggested that mothers should bepersuaded to go to term and give up babies for adoption. Simplythat adoption should be presented, entirely neutrally, as an optionfor a mother.I am not opposed to the need for post adoption support, as theGuardian said just a few weeks ago – a particularly ludicrousclaim - and I don’t think that adoptions are all entirely sunny.Indeed I know just how challenging they can be which is why, ofcourse, I argued the cost benefit case of adoption support in myTimes report.I’m particularly irritated by suggestions that I have not listenedand do not listen to Social Workers. My views about care and myanxiety about the demise of adoption were forged by SocialWorkers with whom it was my privilege to work at Barnardo’sand those I met from local authorities.
But most frustrating of all is the suggestion that I am opposed toKinship Care. Frankly, that is absurd. It would suggest there mustbe a different Martin Narey who, in his Times report, wrote achapter on Special Guardianship, which started with the sentence:Adoption is not the only means of obtaining greater stability for a lookedafter child.andwhich went on to say:Grandparents, and others, willing to become parents for a second time,and when their income may be modest should not be penalised forrelieving local authorities of their legal and heavy financialresponsibilities. [The] extent to which this is limiting the effective use ofGuardianship needs to be explored.That is not to say that I believe that Special Guardianshiparrangements are always the best thing for every child. Very oftenthey are. But, sometimes, when we are talking about a childneglected at home – and I’m aware that there are many kinshipcare arrangements when there has been no such neglect –specialguardianship may be compromising the interests of a child. In myreport I quoted one Social Worker who, a few months previously,told Community Care:An SGO might seem cheaper, easier and more pragmatic. But too oftenthis decision is made without thinking through the long-termimplications of placing a child back into a dysfunctional environment for18 years.There aren’t always enough checks to ensure family and friends,particularly grandparents, haven’t been pressured into applying for anSGO, and that children are being kept away from the negative influencesthat led to the care application. I expect to see large numbers of childrencoming back into care in my authority because of disrupted SGOs.Because of that view, which I heard not infrequently, Irecommended to Ministers that we needed urgently tocommission research into special guardianship breakdowns – as I
recommended the need for further research into adoptionbreakdowns.So, it is right that I am cautious about the extent to which somespecial guardianship arrangements might take place whenadoption might be the better option for the child. Additionally, Icontinue to be troubled by the way the system consecutivelyreviews the eligibility of increasingly unlikely and distant relativesto assume Special Guardianship. In one case which I heard ofrecently in a visit to a local authority, a court required theauthority to commission international social workers to review theeligibility, as special guardian, of someone living in Somalia. Butthat concern should not be mischeviously translated into asuggestion that I am opposed to – for example – grandparents oraunts and uncles being considered for guardianship. Indeed, inone large County I have urged them – and they have agreed – tostop allowing the birth mother a veto on who is invited to familygroup conferences. Because it was clear to me that, as a result ofthat misguided policy, grandparents on the father’s side werebeing frozen out of early consideration for guardianship.But, in case of any continued confusion, let me state in the simplestterms:I believe that when a child cannot be adequately cared for by his orher birth parents we should first, see what support might be madeto make birth parenting adequate. If that can’t be done, and in areasonable timeframe, then the first place we should look to placethe child permanently should be with a close relative. And sucharrangements should not penalise those relatives financially.I’m genuinely puzzled why some of those who support KinshipCare see adoption as being in competition. This is not aboutcompetition, or about which grows faster, special guardianships oradoptions. It’s simply about what is best for each individual child.So I am disappointedwhen I see some of those who promoteKinship care trying to undermine adoption by publishing terriblyexaggerated estimates of adoption disruption. I want to see asmany grandparents as can adequately care for their grandchild
assume special guardianship. But I don’t want those who believethat such a challenge is beyond them, to be frightened by dire andinaccurate predictions of adoption failure.Julie Selwyn may say more about this. But it is important that Istress that suggestions of overall adoption breakdowns in theregion of 20%, 30% or even 50% are fanciful.When I researched adoption for The Times, Action For Childrenand PACT told me their disruption rate was only 3%. BAAFsuggested to me that the overall disruption rate for the over fivegroup might be around 20% but for those adopted between oneand five might the figure might be nearer to ten percent – and thatage group covers 75% of adoptions in England. For those adoptedunder 12 months,BAAF estimated the disruption rate at just threepercent.Fostering v AdoptionLet me also say something about fostering because, here too, I’mpuzzled as to why a determination to increase adoption numbersis seen as an attack on fostering. As the Minister has just stressed,adoption will always only be the right option for a minority ofchildren in care.Achieving permanence with new parents is either impossible orinappropriate for many children in care, particularly those overthe age of 11.Fostering is often the right option for themandfrequently it succeeds where adoption could not. But for youngerchildren, and where it is very clear that they cannot go home, andthat there is not a relative who can care for them permanently, wecannot duck the reality from research that adoption offers agreater likelihood of permanence and one which lasts for ever.Julie Selwyn’s study of non-infant adoptions found that fosteringbreakdowns at 46% were much higher than adoption breakdownsof 17% and other research has reached similar conclusions.There are about 65,000 children in care in England. Last year therewere only 3,000 adoptions. Even if adoptions were to increase nextyear by 50% there would still be about eleven children in foster
placements in England for every child adopted.So why is theresuch anxiety about a government determination to reverse a fall inadoption numbers?The Reform ProgrammeLet me turn to the reform programme. A lot has happened. Wenow have performance scorecards so that every local authority cancompare its performance with others. I am unapologetic aboutscorecards and performance data as a tool to improveperformance. Of course, scorecards can only tell one part of a storyand those who rush to conclusions about an individual localauthority’s management of adoption, based only on last week’sperformance data, would be very unwise. That’s why we use theterm performance indicator. It’s an indicator of performance, aprompt to take a closer look.The scorecards need some more work yet but they represent asignificant step forward. One of the things that most pleased meabout the data when I saw it last weekwas that it gave a lie to theproposition that there has to be a choice between faster adoptionsand successful adoptions. Some of the local authorities I havevisited which have most impressed me, where disruption rates areextremely low, where post adoption support is visible, and whereadopters speak most highly of their experiences, are amongst thefastest authorities in concluding adoptions. That’s because thesignificance of delay in achieving permanence is not lost on thebest authorities.The Adoption Action PlanThe performance scorecards were trailed in the Adoption ActionPlan published a few weeks ago. That document also made plainthat the government will do a number of other things, including: First, compelling swifter use of the national Adoption Register to ensure that we can find the right adopters for a child wherever they might live. I still hear of cases where the right match doesn’t proceed because one local authority
doesn’t want to pay another local authority or a voluntary adoption agency for its adopters. Second, ensuring that more local authorities seek to place children with their potential adopters in anticipation of the courts placement order, something I’ve seen done to great effect and which takes the principles behind concurrent planning for babies and applies it to older children as well; Third, introducing a “fast-track” process for those who have adopted before, or who are foster carers, wanting to adopt a child in their care. I am dealing right now with the successful adopters of four disabled children, who, wanting to adopt another disabled child, have beenbrusquely turned away from ten local authorities – because their approval as adopters has lapsed. Fourth, no longer allowing an adoption to be delayed in order to achieve a perfect or near ethnic or cultural or religious match between adoptive parents and the adoptive child. Again, in this last week, I have been offering advice to a Jewish couple, willing to adopt a child of any or no religion, but who have been turned away from local authorities because they have no Jewish children waiting for adoption.But the most important reform of all will be the radical speedingup the adopter assessment process. This is not intended, in anyway, to reduce the rigour of assessment. It is certainly notintended to let unsuitable people adopt. Indeed one of theattractions of the new system for me is that it will more quicklyidentify those who are unsuitablerather than drag them through aprocess for months and sometimes years before they are turnedaway.I have visited twenty or so local authorities and voluntaryadoption agencies in the past nine months. No one has yet todisagree with the proposition that the current process is repetitiveand lacking in analysis. The new system, designed by practitionersand managers from local authorities and VAAs, will now
generally involve two months spent in training and informationgathering – a pre-qualification phase - followed by four months ofpreparation and training. There will be some adopters who needlonger – and that’s fine. But too many adopters now are terriblyfrustrated by the process and too many of them give up.We need to build on a new assessment process with muchimproved recruitment of adopters. We need to reach out to peoplewho have never previously thought of adopting. We need to frameadoption as sometimes an alternative to IVF treatment, notsomething which is turned to only after successive failures withIVF. But, I am also clear, and Ministers are sympathetic to this, thatpotentialadopters need to be much more confident than they canbe now about the post adoption support which will be available tothem, if and when they meet difficulties.The adoption backlogThe need for better and swifter recruitment of adopters is now amatter of real urgency. That is because, in considerable part, theargument on adoption has been won and many more children arenow being cleared for adoption.So, although the Courts might be responsible for some of the delayin the adoption process (I’m afraid local authorities are sometimestoo quick to use that fact as a justification for not addressing delayin their processes) we now have a large number of children whohave cleared the court processes – however long that might havetaken – and are awaiting adoption, but with no-one to adopt them.The number of children on the Adoption Register, at the beginningof this month was 2,212. That is the highest number ever recordedby BAAF. The number of adopters on the register, meanwhile, isjust311: the lowest ever recorded. We know that both registersmay be incomplete and because of this, I’m afraid that I believethat the gap between approved adopters and children withplacement orders may be much larger than the 1900 suggested bythe Register. If Local Authority returns for the recent scorecardsare correct we now have more than four thousand childrenapproved for adoption. I doubt we have more than six or seven
hundred approved adopters. That amounts to a crisis, and that iswhy Ministers have responded so vigorously, and made a re-design of adopter recruitment their first priority. We now need tomove urgently to introduction of the new system.ConclusionLet me conclude. Adoption is the right option for only a minorityof children in care. But for a bigger minority than the number whocurrently get this new start in life.Adoption today is not remotely as straightforward as it used to be,when my adopted nephews and nieces came to live with my olderbrothers. Adoption now is much more likely to follow neglect orabuse at home, sometimes abuse in the womb, and then one ormore episodes of fostering. That makes adoption today muchmore challenging. That is why we need new processes which willmore quickly identify those needing adoption and then, moreswiftly, unite them with the people: couples and singles; straightand gay; and from all ethnic backgrounds, who are willing to stepforward, despite the challenges, to give a neglected child a newbeginning.