Harrow has turned round its adoption placement success rate thanks to a partnership with Coram.
In 2006, Harrow placed only 3% of its looked-after children with adoptive families, compared with neighbouring councils, most of whom were at the 9% mark.
In an effort to turn this problem around, Harrow brought in private adoption provider Coram to work with the authority to help run adoption services. According to research at Bristol University, the result was an astounding rise – Harrow now places 20% of its looked-after children in adoptive families and says it has radically accelerated the placement process.
Paul Clarke, director of children’s services in Harrow, says the idea to team up with Coram came when the department found itself short-staffed and short of good candidates.
“We were a middle-of-the-road service and knew we wanted to improve,” he says. “We advertised for staff, but just weren’t getting the calibre of applicants we hoped for. So we had a meeting to talk about why this was the case and concluded that the highly skilled staff in the area of adoption were going to be more likely to go to an agency, which would have that many more resources than a London borough such as ourselves. So the decision was easy – we had to find a way to tap that expertise.”
Clarke says Coram was an obvious choice for Harrow not only because of its good reputation, but also because its offices are local to Harrow children’s services.
While Clarke is reluctant to reveal how much the local authority is paying Coram, he emphasises that the outlay represents a small saving for the department.
Jan Kaniuk, head of adoption at Coram, says part of the saving derives from the speed with which children are put through the adoption process in Harrow.
“The key is that Coram identifies adopters at an early stage,” she says. “We get on the case when the court process for the child is started, so by the time the court order is made, we usually have a family in place, waiting. This takes away a huge amount of delays.”
While all parties involved report the programme has worked well, inevitably, there were some initial difficulties and growing pains.
“Introducing new ways of working is always challenging and both sides have had to get to know each other,” says Kaniuk. “Both sides made a commitment to good communications though, and we now work very well together.”
Clarke says that since Harrow was short-staffed to begin with, nobody was displaced by the introduction of Coram, which meant the transition had been relatively smooth. He emphasises that the department had not outsourced their adoption services – rather, the two organisations were working together.
“It’s very much a partnership, which is why we had to make sure that when the programme started one group didn’t come in and say, ‘We’re the pros and you’re not doing a good enough job’,” he says. “We’ve made sure that both sides are invested in positive outcomes.”
Partnership approach is key
Julie Selwyn, the researcher at Bristol University who conducted the study on this programme’s success, says the partnership approach had been the key to the improvement.
“Coram did not take over,” she says, adding that outsourcing functions such as adoption have not always proved successful for councils.
“Harrow had a bad ranking from Ofsted, but what they’ve done is responded to that criticism creatively and as a result benefited from the level of expertise a voluntary agency can provide.”
Case study: Susan, Adoptive parent
‘They’re still backing me up. They’re there to help’
Susan was one of the first parents to adopt a child through Harrow’s partnership with Coram and says she couldn’t have been happier with the process. Now she has a four-year-old daughter who has been living with her for nearly three years.
Before going through Harrow, Susan tried another agency, but delays in the process resulted in a little girl she had wanted to adopt being taken in by someone else before Susan’s paperwork was cleared.
Susan says Coram’s presence throughout the process was a comfort to her.
“After I went through the checks with Coram, I had to go through my paperwork with Harrow, and that was scarier – the second round of questions were a lot more thorough,” she said. “But a lot of that pressure was off because I had Coram there to back me up. They supported me and helped me see that Harrow just wanted to make sure I was able to take proper care of a child.”
Susan adds that Coram’s support didn’t end there.
“They’re still backing me up. If I ever have a question or a problem, I can call them and they’re there to help me,” she says.
“I always say to anybody who wants to go down this avenue, to do it with Harrow and Coram.”
This article is published in the 26 November 2009 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Staff shortage spawns better service