Sacrificed for targets?

There is a danger of local authorities putting
government adoption targets before the needs of individual
looked-after children, writes child care lecturer and children’s
guardian Anna Gupta.

The government has, over the past five years,
launched a range of initiatives aimed at improving services for
vulnerable children. One of the key principles underpinning these
initiatives is that of evidence-based practice. In my concurrent
roles as a lecturer, researcher and children’s guardian, I have
become increasingly aware of the conflicts associated with the
government’s current initiative on adoption. The ability of many
social workers to implement plans based on a detailed assessment
and analysis of children’s needs is impaired by policies and
priorities that are not, in themselves, evidence-based.

workers have been criticised in the past for taking an overly
ideological approach by promoting same-race placements. It is
therefore particularly ironic that what has developed in many local
authorities, as a result of government policies, is an
ideologically driven, dogmatic approach to placing children for
adoption, on occasions, irrespective of their needs or

are obvious advantages for local authorities when placing children
in adoptive homes, as opposed to long-term foster placements. The
financial and social work demands are considerably less, and local
authorities incur financial and “status” penalties when they fail
to meet government adoption targets. Although the outcomes for
organisations may be positive, the same cannot be said for some
children, particularly school-age children, their families, and on
occasions their social workers.

Research evidence on the benefits
of adoption over long-term fostering highlights the complexities of
the debate, and fails to provide the easy answers that many policy
makers and practitioners would like. Sellick and Thoburn, in their
review of the research, found that there was “ample evidence that
the generally negative view of long-term or permanent foster care
is not supported by recent research”.1 Tresiliotis is
more positive about adoption, but argues against an either/or
approach.2 He points out that long-term fostering can be
the plan of choice for children where:

Adoption would be contravening their wishes and

Children are closely attached to carers.

Children have a high level of family contact.

Children are older and want more time before they or their carers
make a final commitment.

one area of consensus among academics is that placement decisions
need to be based on an assessment of a child’s individual needs and
circumstances. The crucial issue is to achieve the right

It is
generally accepted that delaying the permanent placement of
children can be harmful. The search for the Holy Grail of adoption
for many children is long, especially if they are older, black,
have special needs or are part of a sibling group. One boy of mixed
race parentage, who had experienced considerable trauma in early
childhood, was placed in short-term fostering for four years before
an adoptive placement was found. The relief at finding an adoptive
family obscured many professionals’ ability to critically assess
the placement, even when the social worker and the child’s
psychotherapist were expressing grave concerns. Thoburn argues that
for those children for whom a sense of permanence is more important
than the legal status, a policy which seeks either foster parents
or adopters at the same time will widen the pool of potential
carers and succeed in placing more children more quickly with
permanent substitute families.3 This is particularly
relevant for many families from ethnic minorities in whose culture
there are traditions of looking after other people’s children, but
without the legal severance of adoption. The adoption register is
aimed at reducing delay and may succeed with some children.
However, the dissonance between what many adopters want, that is a
young child with no significant family relationships, and the
reality – that most children waiting to be placed are older, have
emotional and behavioural difficulties and contact needs – will not
simply be resolved by the register.

significant issue, which has been largely absent from the adoption
debate, but is very important for children and their families is
that of contact. Too frequently contact issues are not an integral
part of the care planning process and there is an acceptance that
adoption invariably means the termination or severe reduction in
direct contact. This approach ignores the considerable body of
evidence on the benefits of contact. While few would recommend an
approach of “contact in all circumstances”, many parents whose
children are removed from their care are not deliberately abusive,
but are unable to care for them due to emotional difficulties,
exacerbated by desperate social circumstances. Many love their
children and are loved by them. Adoption does not have to involve
the termination of contact, but does in the current climate where
organisational priorities and the adopters’ wishes assume paramount
importance. How else can you explain the placement of an 11 year
old in an adoptive home, which resulted in the termination of
direct contact with family members with whom she had been having
regular, including staying, contact prior to placement?

Decisions about contact so often
fail to incorporate the practice implications of child development
theory. For example, Gilligan suggests that purposeful contact is a
factor which promotes resilience in children, as children feel
cared about by significant adults, even if they are not cared
for.4 Thoburn suggests that the art of child placement
lies in meeting both the child’s need for a sense of permanence and
need for a sense of personal identity, and for that identity to be
respected.5 The severance of attachment relationships
with family members is likely to inflict short-term pain and
possibly long-term harm. The aim should be to achieve permanence
while minimising loss. Few professionals would argue against such
goals for their own children. Are other people’s children that

Sibling relationships are often
devalued and all too often siblings are separated, because an
adoption of a younger sibling may have been possible, but long-term
fostering the only option if they were to remain together.
Decisions are frequently based on the “adoptability” of the younger
child, rather than a detailed assessment of their relationship and
needs. Mullender reminds us that the separation of siblings is not
a minor issue and can inflict pain and sadness, which may remain
throughout life.6

legislation requires that children’s wishes and feelings be taken
seriously, in accordance with their age and understanding. One
other consequence of government pressure to increase adoptions is
that some children’s wishes and feelings are ignored. One local
authority planned to move an 11 and a nine year old from their
foster placement against their wishes and those of their parents,
carers, guardian and social worker. As in many other cases the plan
was only changed after judicial pressure to implement a care-plan,
based on the welfare checklist, including the likely effect of a
change in circumstances.

addition to negative consequences for some children and their
families, the current approach carries an emotional cost for social
workers. Most social workers recognise the complexity of individual
children’s needs and want to use their professional judgement and
make plans based on an evidence-based analysis of these needs.
However, often their personal and professional integrity is
compromised by their having to recommend to court, and carry out,
plans which are based instead on management priorities.

Special Guardianship Order, proposed in forthcoming legislation, is
to be welcomed as it should increase placement choice. However, its
implementation is some way off, and its impact unknown. It is now
essential that the government, and managers within local
authorities stop demanding simplistic responses to what is an
extremely complex debate. If they truly want to improve the lives
and uphold the rights of vulnerable children, they must promote and
adequately resource organisations which value and encourage
reflection and dialogue about the complexities of children’s needs
and develop plans based on evidence, not ideology.

Anna Gupta is lecturer in social work
(child care) at Royal Holloway College, University of London. She
also does some work as a children’s guardian.


1 C Sellick, J Thoburn,
What Works in Family Placement? London, Barnardo’s,

2 J Tresiliotis, “Long-term
foster care or adoption? The evidence examined”. Child and
Family Social Work
. Vol. 7 (1), pp23-34, 2002

3 J Thoburn, “Some
reflections on the impact of research on the practice of permanent
family placement”, BAAF Assessment, Preparation and Support:
Implications from Research
. London, BAAF, 1999

4 R Gilligan, “Beyond
Permanence? The importance of resilience in child placement
practice and planning” Adoption & Fostering
21:1, 1997

5 J Thoburn, “Psychological
parenting and child placement: ‘But we want to have our cake and
eat it’,” In D Howe (ed) Attachment and Loss in Child and
Family Social Work
, Avebury, 1996

6 A Mullender (ed), We
are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond
BAAF, 2000



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