‘We risk reversing substantial progress and damaging life-long outcomes for children’

Adoption is not being pursued for some children, even when social workers believe it is in their best interests, writes Sir Martin Narey

Over the past three years we have seen many more children finding permanent and loving homes through adoption. Directors of children’s services, local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies have responded brilliantly to the government’s adoption reforms.

First Michael Gove and Tim Loughton, and now Nicky Morgan and Edward Timpson, have been determined that when adoption is the best option for a child that we can secure that adoption in a timely manner. The results are clear, with a 63% increase in adoptions in just three years.

That’s why I’m so concerned that fewer children are being put forward for adoption. The change we have seen over the last nine months is nothing less than dramatic: local authority decisions to pursue adoption are down by 46%, while the number of placement order applications granted by the courts has more than halved.

These changes will, if they are not addressed, reverse the substantial progress made and damage life-long outcomes for some of our most vulnerable children.

Let me be clear: adoption is not right for every child, indeed adoption will only ever be right for a minority of children in care. But it is the right option for a significant number. And it is clear that in recent months adoption has not been pursued for some, even when social workers believe it is in the child’s interests.

As chair of the National Adoption Leadership Board (ALB), I have heard from practitioners working on the ground that these changes are in response to a number of high profile court judgements on care and adoption order cases, notably Re B and Re B-S. Much of what I have heard suggests a serious degree of misinterpretation of these judgements. These misinterpretations are damaging the life chances of some children

I have absolutely no issue with the judgements themselves, stressing as they do that adoption for any child has to be demonstrably the best option and recommended only when the child’s welfare demands it.

This is not a new test. I would never have put so much of my time into initiating the adoption reform programme were the test any less rigorous. But I fear that some local authorities are setting themselves a much harder test, which must be passed before adoption is pursued. That needs to be addressed urgently.

So, this week the National Adoption Leadership Board has issued myth buster guidance to councils – drafted for the ALB by a senior QC – on what the court judgements do and do not say and what this means for practice.

Before commissioning the guidance, I discussed the serious drop in adoptions with Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court who made the Re BS judgement, and I have been extremely grateful for his advice. The myth buster has been shared with him, and he supports its aim of dispelling misconceptions about the recent case law on adoption.

The main myths are that:

• The legal test for adoption has changed: It hasn’t.

• To satisfy the Courts all alternative options to adoption must be considered: Not so. The evidence must address all options which are realistically possible.

• Adoption is only appropriate where nothing else will do: ‘Nothing else will do’ does not mean settling for an alternative which will not meet the child’s physical and emotional needs.

• Because it is a ‘last resort’ planning for adoption must wait until other options have been categorically ruled out. Not true. Local Authorities should plan at the earliest possible stage for the alternative of adoption where it seems possible that the child’s reunification with the family or care by other members of the family might not prove to be possible.

• The 26 week rule applies to placement orders. Since April any application for a care order or supervision order must be completed within 26 weeks but placement orders are not subject to the 26 week time limit.

The myth buster is being distributed to staff at all levels and across various disciplines in local authorities, Cafcass and the family justice system.

I urge all those involved in the adoption system to read it and reflect on how they as professionals, and their organisations, can make sure their practice and decision-making accurately reflects the judgments.

Our most vulnerable children deserve nothing less.

More from Community Care

2 Responses to ‘We risk reversing substantial progress and damaging life-long outcomes for children’

  1. Philip Measures November 12, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    Good spin Martin! The Judges are absolutely correct to take the firm line that social workers have sometimes clearly not taken.

    With the over-arching Child Abuse Inquiry yet to really begin we perhaps need to be patient and await its findings / recommendations and perhaps they just might include a need to return to really meaningful provision of adequate resources to support familes – to be able to keep children and young people safe at home or with extended family members.

    Adoption will always have an important role to play BUT it needs to be demonstrably based on proper support having been available – not the unseemly rush to fulfill the 26 weeks Care proceedings dictat.

    40+ years ago I never dreamed that I would see my professional descend into being so utterly bureaucratic and insensitive to the needs of those we ought to be primarily helping. The very origins and meaning of what social work means are being lost to the ever-increasing pressures being brought to bear by Government and career politicians – and all those with little or no real social work experience.

  2. Annie November 13, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    Whilst I agree that in a very small minority of cases the only correct plan for a child is adoption Martin Narey and others have always avoided the vital question, how many adoption breakdown’s are there? Well, as a social worker for the past 30 years my experience shows that there are an unacceptable number of adoption breakdowns. What adopters want in the main are babies and ‘undamaged goods’ at that, what most LAs offer are children that have attachment difficulties, have suffered injury and serious neglect and often have parents with severe dependence/mental health issues, plus the children available are generally older. I have been asked/ordered by senior management, both in CAFCASS and as a social worker to be more positive in respect to the attributes of children to make them ‘more adoptable’, when, by the time they have been removed from parents, placed with foster carers (perhaps a number of times) their ability to form positive attachments is very poor. The majority of funding needs to be focused on assisting families to provide care to their own children and not on court proceedings or supporting fostering agencies or adopters to do the job of parents.