Adoption rates are falling and courts are favouring alternatives such as special guardianship orders. Camilla Pemberton asks why this is happening and whether the situation can improve
Earlier this year, education secretary Michael Gove gave a revealing interview to the Daily Mail in which he described his experiences growing up in an adoptive family. “Adoption, as I know, is a great opportunity,” he said. Now, at a time when adoption rates are falling nationally, many will want to know whether Gove’s positive experience will translate into policy.
After all, some believe adoption is in desperate need of a political push. Last month, it was revealed that the number of children placed for adoption fell by 15% this year, while around 25% of children with an adoption plan are never successfully matched with an adoptive family.
“If children with an adoption plan achieved that plan we would see the number of orders rise by hundreds. It raises questions about the supply of adopters and whether we are approving sufficient numbers of people,” says David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).
A paper on adoption, completed by the Conservatives before the general election, has yet to see the light of day. With care applications rising every month, experts say there is renewed pressure to identify, and resolve, issues within the system.
Claudia Wood, senior researcher at Demos, wants the return of adoption targets, as championed by Tony Blair. This was a key recommendation of the think-tank’s recent report In Loco Parentis. “Without a push from central government we will continue to lose adoption numbers,” she said. “There was a significant increase in adoption orders following Blair’s targets.”
The benefits of successful adoptions are well-evidenced – research has shown adopted children have good psychosocial outcomes and more stable placements than children brought up in care – but adoption still divides opinion, according to children’s guardians, with some courts and social work teams reluctant to recommend it “because of its legal finality.”
One told Community Care: “The stakes are high so the process is often dramatic and prolonged. For those who favour family support, adoption is too final. Judges are concerned about the rate of adoption breakdowns, which is perceived to be high [although no figures are collected nationally], and the availability of post-adoption support.”
Local authority budget woes are beginning to affect adoption support, according to Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Adolescent and Children’s Trust (TACT). “We have children with adoption plans who we can’t match with families because we haven’t been able to agree on a suitable package of post-placement support with the councils. They are worried about their budgets,” Williams says.
Some adoption experts have highlighted a possible new issue. They say courts are turning away from adoption in favour of special guardianship orders (SGOs). Introduced in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to give children permanence without the looked-after status of long-term foster care or the legal status of adoption, SGOs have been described as a halfway house between care and adoption.
It is difficult to draw a direct link between a reported rise in the use of SGOs and falling adoption rates because the number of SGOs is not yet tracked by the government. But, anecdotally, some social work teams are concerned that SGOs are ordered for young children whose needs would be better met by adoption.
Lindsay*, an adoption team manager, said: “In many cases, SGOs work well, but there is dispute about when they are appropriate. In my authority we’re seeing increasing numbers of children under four being looked after by relatives, often grandparents, even though we recommended adoption.
“Often a family or friend carer will come forward and an SGO might seem cheaper, easier and more pragmatic. But too often this decision is made without thinking through the long-term implications of placing a child back into a dysfunctional environment for 18 years.
“There aren’t always enough checks to ensure family and friends, particularly grandparents, haven’t been pressured into applying for an SGO, and that children are being kept away from the negative influences that led to the care application. I expect to see large numbers of children coming back into care in my authority because of disrupted SGOs.”
Children’s services are often concerned that SGOs are a “backdoor for the parents”, according to Caroline Little, a family lawyer. She says the assessment process must determine “whether carers can maintain a boundary between the child and the parents they were removed from”.
Members of the adoption and permanence planning team in Camden, north London, became concerned last year that adoption orders were being sidelined in favour of SGOs. They now aim to “really critically analyse any SGO we do for an under-five and hone in on the care planning”, according to the team’s assistant director for family services Anne Turner.
“We understand that some people find the legal finality of adoption difficult, but it would be a worry if we’re fudging adoption to appease families who are still in dispute and will never be able to sort their problems out.”
Margaret Wilson, a family magistrate, says SGOs are a valuable resource, but admits not enough is known about their longitudinal outcomes. “It is time for SGOs to be evaluated,” she says. Mary Beek, who worked on an early study of them for the former government, agrees more research is needed. “We did hear some courts favour SGOs, but the potential effects of this need more research,” she says.
Wood says the cumulative effect of administrative delays and ideological sticking points has led to systemic problems which need urgent attention.
“The longer children stay in unstable circumstances with no decisions made about their future, the more problems they develop and the less likely they are to be adopted,” she says. “We need a clear message from government about how they are planning to improve the situation.”
Wood believes a council’s adoption rate is symptomatic of the level of instability in the system. “To achieve a successful adoption, you need to have a fast-moving placement system and permanence strategy where you identify children who can never return home very quickly. In an area where the adoption rate is low there are probably lots of delays and more children in temporary care.”
*Name has been changed
What is an SGO?
Special guardianship orders were created in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 to allow a child who cannot live with his or her parents – but for whom adoption is not considered appropriate – to live with someone permanently rather than go into local authority care.
The order, expected to last until the child is 18, does not remove parental responsibility from the child’s birth parents – as it does in an adoption order – but limits their ability to exercise it.
This allows the special guardian to make day-to day decisions about caring for the child and more important decisions, such as their education.
Children placed for adoption
- 2,300 children were placed for adoption in the year to 31 March 2010.
- This is a decrease of 15% from the 2009 figure of 2,700. In 2008, 2,900 children were placed for adoption.
Adoption orders (the final part of the process – when the adoption is legally binding)
- 3,200 children were adopted in 2009-10.
- This is down 4% on the 2008-09 figure of 3,300 and down 14% on the 2006 figure of 3,700.
What do you think? Join the debate on CareSpace
Keep up to date with the latest developments in social care Sign up to our daily and weekly e-mails
This article is published in the 4 November 2010 issue of Community Care magazine under the headline “Obstacles to adoption”