Adopting sound policy

the line on targets is less important to the Adoption and Permanence Task Force
than tackling the crisis in child care. Frances Rickford reports.

social service departments are now preparing to say goodbye to their visitors from
the Adoption and Permanence TaskForce as the next batch get ready to meet

task force was set up by the government a year ago as one of a series of
initiatives in support of its policy to boost adoption. Since then the Adoption
and Children Bill has been published, along with a target increase of 40 per
cent in adoptions over five years. Last month saw the publication of a new set
of national standards on adoption for England which impose tight deadlines for
decisions about the future of individual children looked after – standards
which will be used by the National Care Standards Commission as a basis for
inspecting adoption services.

the Adoption and Permanence Task Force might be expected to be out there
pushing social services departments to get more children adopted more quickly.
But according to the task force’s director Mike Lauerman, that is not its

is just one part of the whole children looked after system, and I don’t think
it would be helpful for us to say we are here to help you increase adoptions.
We are there to help authorities achieve performance improvements, which might
lead to an increase in adoptions. But primarily it is about promoting good
professional practice. That means making sure there is a clear focus on the
needs of the child, with a good assessment and a carefully prepared plan, which
is done in a way that doesn’t leave children drifting."

task force is, in effect, a highly qualified team of specialist management
consultants, and provides an example of how local authorities and the voluntary
sector can share their own considerable expertise and experience instead of
always buying it in from costly private sector consultants. More than half its
members are currently employed by local authority social services departments
and the rest have extensive experience in the adoption field.

Crank, director of the Manchester-based post-adoption agency After Adoption is
a member of the task force and led one of the task force groups.

believes staff shortages lie at the heart of the problem. "It is very
difficult to separate adoption from the rest of an authority’s child care
system, and it wouldn’t be surprising to find that if the child care system as
a whole was in difficulty, adoption wasn’t happening either. Because of staff
shortages there is very low morale in many local authorities, and the systems
that should be in place just aren’t there."

whose organisation works closely with birth parents who have lost children to
adoption, has been surprised to discover that even babies and young children
voluntarily relinquished by their own parents are not always placed for
adoption promptly. "In authorities where perhaps a child has died, social
services may have put a lot into improving child protection, leaving services
for looked after children under-resourced," says Crank.

the same, she believes her own team, in partnership with managers and staff,
was able to make a difference. "We went in and said we were there to help.
With their staff, we looked at the organisation from the point of view of a
child coming into care, and together did an audit of their children, looking at
those with no permanency plans."

such "drift" for children in care is a key aim of the National
Adoption Standards for England. For the first time, local authorities will be
required to make a plan for permanence for every child in care by the second
review meeting – when the child has been looked after for just four months. Put
together with the ambitious 40 per cent increase in adoptions the government is
expecting by March 2005, the standards will cause concern to those who fear
children may be adopted out of their own families too hastily.

Roberts’ own children have been in local authority care, and she is now a
spokesperson for charity Altogether For Dignity (ATD) Fourth World, which works
with families in deep poverty.

are very concerned about the push to increase adoptions. Most children who are
adopted have come from families in poverty and it is deep and intergenerational
poverty rather than any criminal act against a child that causes most families
to lose a child to adoption," she says.

government is giving social services an incentive to remove children rather
than put in services to keep the child at home. As a result, families who may
have asked for help are less likely to do so.

you are asking people to change their whole lifestyle, that takes time. Yet the
poorer you are, and the younger the child, the more quickly you are going to
lose that child to adoption," says Roberts.

adoption standards, which are definitely not "adoption and
permanence" standards, state that the needs and wishes, welfare and safety
of the looked after child "are at the centre of the adoption process"
– but apparently not paramount, as they are in the Children Act 1989.

challenge to local authorities on the service they were offering children in
public care was long overdue. But the task force is surely right to insist that
the long-term welfare of individual children is infinitely more important than
the number of adoption orders clocked up in the courts.

as Roberts warns, "The government says it wants to reduce child poverty.
Removing the children of the poor is not the way to do it."

Task force visits Lambeth

Boyce, children’s resources manager at Lambeth social services, is full of enthusiasm
for the task force. The London Borough of Lambeth has a high number of looked
after children – 750 – and so has a high government target for adoptions.

are on ministerial directions so we are considered to be a local authority that
had been failing in some areas. But they didn’t come in to find out what we
were doing wrong or to inspect us in any way," he says. "Instead, we
had a group of about six people who were giving us between 25 and 30 days’
consultancy – which was great. They have challenged us, but in a really helpful
way. Early on the team came to meet us, and from that meeting they came up with
a development plan based on the information we had shared with them."

Two of the key areas tackled in the plan were staff morale, and a "linking
list" of about 200 children who had been identified at some time as
suitable for adoption.

"They helped us to think about those children who had been on the
linking list for a long time. As a result, we regrouped that list and looked
for other sorts of permanent placements for some children. Some had been with
the same carers for a long time, so now we’re looking at getting residence
orders for them with their existing carers. As a result we will have more
children placed on a permanent basis," says Boyce.

"We won’t get much kudos for that in terms of government adoption
targets, although there may in the end be more adoptions because the adoption
team will have a smaller number of children to focus on. But in any case I will
be happy to see those children in permanent placements. And we can also talk to
our local politicians, and get their support for our own local targets."

Another big issue in Lambeth is same race or transracial placements. Most of
the children needing placements in the borough are black and most of the staff
in the adoption team are black too. Black staff have had personal objections to
placing black children with white carers, but instead of telling them to
swallow their principles members of the task force encouraged them to think
about how they could recruit more adopters from the black community.

"Now we’re about to embark on a major campaign for black
adopters," Boyce reports. "We’re also looking at adoption allowances
for people on low incomes. A lot of our children are very damaged, and in many
cases one carer may have to give up work and stay at home.

"The task force has pushed us, but we felt that they were really keen
on proper care planning for children and on making the right decisions. They’ve
also noticed things we were doing well, and told us we were doing them well. I
tell you, when they leave Lambeth, they will have made a significant difference

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