John Hemming’s allegations that social workers are unnecessarily taking children into care to meet adoption targets has caused outrage across the sector. Campaigners have described them as unacceptable and dangerous and fear that they will damage the public’s view of social work.
Hemming, however, argues that he is highlighting miscarriages of justice and is right to expose what he sees as serious flaws in the care system.
The crux of Hemming’s argument is that financial incentives behind adoption targets are spurring councils to incorrectly take into care healthy white babies – who he argues are the most easily adoptable (see “The targets in question”). He says it is not helpful to focus on specific targets as these change over time.
Ann Baxter, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services health, care and additional needs policy committee, says Hemming’s argument involves accepting “there’s a huge conspiracy involving large numbers of professionals and lay people all because a council can get an additional bit of grant”.
The family courts, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and lay adoption panel members play a role in deciding whether children should be taken into care or adopted – not just councils. Baxter says: “We refute Hemming’s perspective. It doesn’t add up.”
David Holmes, chief executive at British Association for Adoption and Fostering, agrees. He says care and adoption decisions are subject to intensive scrutiny. He adds: “The impression he gives is that it’s possible to take a decision about adopting a child in about two minutes.”
Just one of more than 50 front-line professionals who sent responses to Community Care said they felt under pressure to take children into care due to adoption targets, and some said they were unaware of their existence.
Most criticised Hemming’s views, with some saying social workers were often unable to have children taken into care if they felt they were at risk. However, a few backed his views, including two who felt that some groups of parents, such as those with physical or learning disabilities, were treated unfairly.
Hemming says he has encountered a number of cases where parents have had their children unfairly taken into care. He also says he has also personally experienced social workers fabricating evidence about his own personal life. He also cites the sharp rise in the number of children under five adopted or taken into care from 1995 to 2006 in England (see “From care to adoption”) and says similar trends do exist among older children.
Government figures also show that the number of children adopted who were younger than one month when they were taken into care in 2006 in England was more than double that in 1995.
Hemming’s interpretation of the statistics does not wash with campaigners. They argue that research has shown adoption to be a positive outcome for many children, and that it is therefore right that more children in care have been adopted.
In 2000, the government introduced a national target to increase the number of children adopted from care by at least 40% between 1999-2000 and 2004-5; by 2005-6, adoptions had risen by 37%. Baxter says the target was partly responsible for the rise and was a positive move as in the early 1990s too many children were languishing in care. “There were concerns that the balance [between parents’ rights and children’s’ rights] had been shifted and children were waiting too long.”
Increased alcohol and drug addiction among parents has also contributed to the rise, says Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK. “Traditionally, few healthy white babies came into the care system. The increase is often due to children being moved at birth or soon after where they are born into families who can’t look after them due to drink or drug abuse.”
Hemming says he has seen “no evidence” to support this view.
The campaigners argue that the increase is also down to more being known about child development and the importance of what happens to babies in their early months.
Holmes points out that, although adoptions have risen, it is from a low base and they represent a small proportion of the English care population: 5% in 1999-2000 and 6% in 2005-6. He adds that adoption is a slow process, with government figures for England showing that the average time between when under-ones come into care and when they are adopted is two years and one month.
There is a shortage of people coming forward to be adoptive parents and campaigners say that Hemming’s allegations could exacerbate this, which the MP acknowledges.
Many of the front-line professionals who commented said Hemming’s views would reinforce the ill-informed image of social workers as child snatchers. Baxter says they could also be dangerous for children.
She says: “Allegations like this bring the system into disrepute. He might be putting people off raising concerns about a child’s welfare and children might be put at risk.” Hemming describes this as “nonsense”.
For Holmes, Hemming is laying into a system of high quality, something that must not get lost in his allegations. “We have a good child protection system and a good care system and we must not scare the public into not having any confidence in the system,” he says.
THE TARGETS IN QUESTION (back)
Local area agreements/local public service agreements
Sixty-one councils have local area agreements or local public service agreements which feature a target on adoption and/or stability of placements for looked-after children. Councils receive financial rewards if they meet these targets.
LAAs have been piloted over the past two years and LPSAs ended in March, when they were largely merged into LAAs. In 2008 all 150 councils in England will sign new three-year LAAs which may include a target on adoption. Rewards are unlikely to be given out for meeting specific targets under the new agreements, though LAAs will contain broad incentives to meet targets.
Each LAA will be based on a set of 53 national targets drawn from a list of 200 measures which will be published this autumn. A target on the proportion of looked-after children adopted has been proposed for inclusion by the DCSF. Councils and their partners will negotiate whether to include this target in their LAA with the government, which should depend on local needs and existing performance.
Local partners can also add their own local targets but need not report on them to the government.
Councils have faced a performance indicator on the proportion of looked-after children adopted in their annual performance assessment framework since 1998. The indicator feeds into councils’ annual performance assessment for children’s services.
Although councils do not receive a direct financial reward for doing well on performance indicators, Hemming says there is still is still a financial incentive, as a higher APA score leads to more financial freedoms from central government.
FROM CARE TO ADOPTION IN ENGLAND (back)
● 2,490 under-fives in care were adopted in 2006, up from 1,010 in 1995.
● 4,160 under-fives were first taken into care in 2006, up from 2,870 in 1995.
● 1,300 babies aged younger than a month when they were taken into care were adopted in 2006, up from 540 in 1995.
● The average age at adoption in 2006 was four years and one month.
● 3,700 children were adopted from care in 2006, up from 2,700 in 2000.
Adoption and Fostering
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas gives his perspective
John Hemmings responds
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 2 August issue under the headline “Miscarriages of justice or conspiracy theory?”