The sudden death of BAAF: How it happened and what it may mean for social work

Community Care examines the factors behind BAAF’s closure and its implications for adoption and fostering work

By Luke Stevenson & Tristan Donovan

Staff knew something was up. First came whispers of financial problems, then talk of restructuring but always caveated with upbeat ‘don’t worry, it will work out ok’.

Then came the unfamiliar visitors, who came to the offices for hush-hush meetings. The mystery visitors, staff discovered were from the children’s charity Coram, who – unknown to them at the time – would take over a significant chunk of BAAF’s work in England just a few weeks later.

“The way that we found out was because they had to sign into the office,” one former BAAF employee told Community Care. “People would Google their names because there were so many secrets about it.”

The truth emerged soon after. On Monday 27 July BAAF employees were told there would be redundancies and more would be revealed that Friday. It was a blow, but at least there would be time to job hunt during the consultation period they thought.

Black Friday

But what happened on Friday 31 July was a shock. That day the 37-year-old adoption and fostering charity entered administration and announced it was closing with immediate effect.

Of its 135 employees, 55 were told they were now working for Coram, which had taken over several BAAF services in England including the Adoption Register, its membership, publications and the Independent Review Mechanism.

Around 50 of those remaining were told they were now unemployed while in Scotland staff learned that the country’s adoption register and national adopter information helpline had been transferred to St. Andrew’s Children’s Society.

Meanwhile, the rest of BAAF’s operations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were to continue for “a brief period” while options for their future were explored.

“It was just quite shocking really,” one former BAAF employee says. “It was quite unbelievable that something like that could have happened, such a crash without any real understanding.”

In a statement issued that Friday, BAAF’s chief executive Caroline Selkirk blamed the closure on “significant changes and prevailing economic conditions”, adding: “We appreciate that this is a very challenging time for our dedicated staff and are committed to giving them as much support as is possible during this period.”

Not that those who found themselves out of work that day feel supported. “When we read that staff are being supported as much as possible, I would like to ask those responsible what support that is,” says one of the employees made redundant. “We are not even being offered references or anything. We were just told get out of the building and that’s it. So I don’t know what constitutes as being supported.”

Administrators Smith & Williamson say they will be assisting those made redundant in making claims for redundancy payments to the government’s National Insurance Fund, but those who lost their jobs feel bitter about how they were treated that day.

“For many years, the chairman has stated that BAAF’s biggest asset was its staff group, yet those very staff who had contributed so much to the adoption and fostering sector, and had been responsible for maintaining BAAF’s worldwide reputation, were either dismissed without notice or notified that they were transferring to a new organisation on 31 July,” says one former employee.

‘A perfect storm’

BAAF’s path to insolvency began at least a month and a half earlier. In a letter sent to the charity’s creditors by the administrators and seen by Community Care, BAAF contacted Smith & Williamson after “discovering that it was experiencing financial difficulties”.

On 15 June, the financial services company met with BAAF’s trustees and was asked to review the ailing charity’s options. The exact causes of its troubles remain unclear. The letter to creditors names BAAF’s pension deficit as its most substantial debt, but former BAAF employees say other factors were involved too.

One of these was the cost of implementing the IT security for the Adopter Access Pilot, which was to allow would-be adopters to see photos and videos of children who were up for adoption. While the security requirements were set out in the contract BAAF signed with the Department for Education (DfE) to deliver the service, former employees say the costs were proving prohibitively high.

Another factor may have been what one ex-employee calls “a very significant” drop in referrals to BAAF’s family finding service, Be My Parent, following the Munby judgment. Others speculate that there may have been a drop in demand for BAAF’s training services due to local authority cutbacks.

The Charity Commission, meanwhile, is “considering whether we have any regulatory concerns we need to address with the trustees”.

The administrators, however, are not saying any more about the difficulties that caused BAAF’s closure for now beyond the charity facing “a perfect storm of adverse issues”.

Andy Elvin, chief executive of fostering and adoption charity and former BAAF member organisation TACT, feels the issues don’t explain the suddenness of BAAF’s demise.

“It’s a shock and disappointment that such a long-standing charity could go out of business so very abruptly,” he says. “We think it was the pension liability but I run a large charity and I can see these things coming 18 months away. It doesn’t speak of good governance.

“You can see financially a reasonably long way into the future, particularly if like BAAF you’re a membership organisation. You can see the trends in training take up and membership. Those things are foreseeable quite a reasonable distance into the future.”

Services sold for £7

After reading Smith & Williamson’s review, BAAF’s trustees decided administration was the only option. Restructuring was ruled out as needing more time and money than BAAF had.

Ahead of formally entering administration, BAAF began talks with Coram about the charity taking over its services, an option the letter to creditors said should enable the administrators to recover around £932,000 of the money BAAF is owed by its debtors.

While Smith & Williamson’s review looked at several merger partners, Coram was regarded as the only “appropriate” option by BAAF’s trustees.

Offering BAAF’s operations on the open market was ruled out due to the sensitive nature of services such as the adoption register, the need for the DfE to approve the transfer of such contracts and the charitable nature of the BAAF’s operations.

But even a deal with Coram had issues. The letter to creditors says regulatory differences prevented Coram from taking on BAAF’s work outside England and that the extent of BAAF’s debts, especially its pension deficit, prevented a wholesale transfer of all services in England.

In the end Coram offered BAAF a total of £40,000 for a number of BAAF’s operations. Of this £34,993 was to pay for its stocks of historic publications, £5,000 for fixtures and fittings, and £7 for the services it took on, namely:

  • Policy, research and development
  • Publications
  • Membership
  • Independent Reviewing Mechanism in England
  • Adoption Register
  • Adoption Activity Days
  • Southern training

These services have now been distributed to different parts of the Coram group of charities, including a new entity called CoramBAAF. “CoramBAAF will continue to operate as an independent membership organisation for agencies and individuals in the UK as well as services in research, policy and development, professional advice and professional development, publications and Adoption Activity Days,” said a Coram spokeswoman.

The Independent Reviewing Mechanism, meanwhile, is now run by Coram Children’s Legal Centre while First4Adoption, which is run by Coram and Adoption UK, is managing the adoption register.

Conflict of interest

However, the transfer of services to Coram has caused concern among adoption and fostering agencies that were members of BAAF. TACT’s Elvin, for example, is uneasy about BAAF services now being part of a group that includes another adoption agency.

“BAAF was an umbrella agency, Coram’s an adoption provider, so they are in the same space as us,” he says. “It doesn’t feel comfortable with, particularly the Independent Review Mechanism where we are being asked to hand over commercially sensitive information to a rival agency. I’m not sure the DfE has been well advised to allow these contracts to be handed over.

“Same with the adoption register. There’s the new charity Adoption Link that do an excellent job with matching. That seems like a more obvious fit because they are not an adoption provider, so there is no conflict of interest.”

The DfE told Community Care that it approved the transfer of these contracts because the priority was to “avoid delays in matching children already on the register with loving families”.

“BAAF has worked tirelessly on behalf of vulnerable children for over 30 years,” said a DfE spokesman. “We’re grateful for the crucial role they’ve played in our commitment to overhaul the adoption system so more children can find permanent families. We look forward to seeing their work continue under CoramBAAF.”

There are worries on the fostering side too. Stephanie Clay is the chief operating officer of PICS, which runs the fostering agencies Clifford House, Fosterplus, ISP and Orange Grove Fostercare.

“I’ve worked with looked-after children for around 25 years so BAAF has been part of my career for a very long time and I’ve always referred to BAAF for guidance, literature, information, forms, training and conferences,” she says. “My relationship with BAAF over the years has been with people who have extensive expertise around fostering so there are a number of questions I would want to ask.

“Coram are experts in adoption so how are they going to retain expertise in the fostering field? How are they going to retain that link with central government around fostering? How are they going to inform practice and work with partners to inform the changes in the literature around fostering and the research to inform our practice?”

Of the services that didn’t get transferred to Coram, little is known. Former staff are particularly concerned about BAAF’s therapeutic services, which they say provided support to “hundreds” of looked-after children and families in England. Smith & Williamson say they cannot comment on specifics about this service at this stage.

The situation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is no clearer. All the administrators will say is that they are working with the respective governments in these nations to “achieve a smooth handover of these services”.

Long-term impact

While some BAAF services have been rescued and more may yet survive, those working in adoption and fostering feel the organisation’s collapse will do long-term damage to work with looked-after children.

“It’s important that we have an independent body that is able to support and influence best practice in fostering and BAAF was that body. I don’t know who is going to fill that gap,” says Clay. “There is going to be a longer term impact as we move through this year. Where do people now go for that research? We had one body we could go to, one place, one phone number, one membership.”

Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, shares Clay’s concerns about the potential loss of fostering expertise. “Although Coram has taken this on, for me the reason BAAF’s publications were so good was the expertise behind them,” he says. “At BAAF there were all these experts around the country coming together and contributing to this knowledge and that for me is the key thing we’ll lose with BAAF.

“Now more than ever it’s needed because there’s a huge increase in care numbers year on year and the system is under pressure like it’s never been before. I hope Coram can fill the gap.”

Elvin feels that while BAAF’s demise lacked the controversy and eye-catching images of Kids Company’s fall, it will be the sudden death of BAAF that will have the greater impact in the long run.

“It’s a significant loss, they were a great repository of expertise. In terms of its effect on vulnerable children over a longer period of time, BAAF is the more worrying loss than Kids Company, far more worrying.”

9 Responses to The sudden death of BAAF: How it happened and what it may mean for social work

  1. Donal Oge August 13, 2015 at 1:12 pm #

    The BAAF pension deficit sounds like a red herring. It had a pension fund deficit for many years. At times it has been much higher than it was when BAAF went into administration.

    Many businesses have very large deficits on their defined benefit pension schemes but do not feel it necessary to pay them off immediately or got out of business. The Financial Times reported this week that the 350 companies that make up the FTSE 350 index have aggregate defined benefit pension scheme deficits of £64.7 billion, up from £53.3b a year ago. The FT said that companies “are paying less towards meeting their pension shortfalls than at any point since 2009, even as aggregate pension deficits reach their highest level in five years”.

    A better explanation for the death of BAAF is required.

  2. Maurice Price August 13, 2015 at 3:00 pm #

    As the articles identifies, looks sadly like governance failed and trustees progressed more in hope than certainty. Especially as times get increasingly harder the need for a strong financial focus becomes more vital.

    Not necessarily a strong part of the sector’s tradition. Without there will be ever more cliff edge events like this and Kids Co.

  3. Imelda August 14, 2015 at 2:09 pm #

    This is like the banking crisis of the social work world!! Where is the fostering service support in all this? Why has BAAF been given over to an adoption provider? Who will provide the good practice guides? As a tax payer and a social worker, I really would like to be able to understand more and hence, is there a more comprehensive report prepared?? I can’t seem to find it??

  4. terry bamford August 14, 2015 at 6:52 pm #

    The Trustees of BAAF like those of Kids Company face some tough questions as to how the organisation reached a position where mass redundancies and in BAAF’s case a merger with another charity were necessary at a few days notice. They make Mr Micawber look like a model of forward planning.
    Where was the Department for Education and its vocal Adoption Adviser, Sir Martin Narey, when BAAF was undergoing its terminal crisis? BAAF has a justified reputation for its work in promoting good practice in adoption and fostering. It is hugely respected. The silence of the Department, the Chief Social Worker for Children and Sir Martin over its closure is extraordinary.
    What this episode has in common with Kids Company and the collapse of the College is the impact of cuts in local authority funding resulting from the fantasy of neoliberal thinking which infects this Government. This is reflected in the belief that public services can be cut without detrimental impact on quality because the voluntary and charitable sector will move into the space vacated. Yet the voluntary sector is itself in crisis because of its historic reliance on local authority grants and funding of training programmes. The symbiotic relationship between the public and voluntary sectors means that change in one affects the other.
    Social work has to speak with one voice to avoid the divide and rule tactics of Government which in the past has preferred to regard the College, ADCS and ADASS as representing social work. That is why the forthcoming summit of social work organisations which BASW is convening is so important. Faced with challenges to social work training and to public sector funding and with social policies calculated to increase poverty, social work has to develop the case that it is an indispensable part of a caring and compassionate society.

  5. Jo Ward August 17, 2015 at 9:57 am #

    This is very worrying on several counts, but one is the loss of expertise built up over many years. BAAF had a deep reservoir of professional knowledge among its personnel which may now go to the grave with BAAF. Much more concerning for vulnerable children than the downfall of the College of Social Work, which had made very little impact. How can such a major and influential organisation as BAAF just close in this way? I have no issue with Coram as such, but how can it have bought all those services for just £7?
    Shocking and very sad.

  6. Koshka August 17, 2015 at 11:32 am #

    Always felt writing was on wall for BMP as AdoptionLink is everything that it should have been. However was shocked by BAAF closure, wonder how much income had historically come from BMP and so caused problems as it reduced dramatically.

    Think there are similarities to Kids Co as both dependent on shrinking public sector budgets and yet continued to lobby against govt policies where felt to not be right. Strange state of affairs though when no reserves for staff redundancies etc.

  7. Yetti2 August 17, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    Shockingly, I’ve just seen that the Be My Parent website is still live and taking subscriptions! Any family not going to the site via the homepage will not see the message saying it has closed, and the administrators have still not shut this down! I wonder how many families have forked out for subscriptions since 31 July and will be so low down in the pecking order of creditors that they will not get a refund. Highly unethical – taking money for a defunct service, possibly illegal?

  8. Sean Ferrer August 17, 2015 at 4:57 pm #

    BAAF became complacent. Then irrelevant. Their support to agencies was superficial at best. Tired old publications and rehashed training sessions. Quality audits of adoption services not worth the paper they were written on. And a prevailing, and misplaced sense of sector superiority. All, in the end, commercially fatal. Whilst I utterly sympathise with staff who face joblessness, when it comes to looked after kids, such as I was once, I offer no sympathy to organisations that sit on their hands.

  9. Frank Murtagh August 18, 2015 at 12:50 am #

    While this smacks of a classical case of mismanagement and lack of governance, it also looks like a good example of very, very poor professional advice from the administrator‪s and of course a financial bonanza for them. BAAF could have been re-structured in response to financial exigencies – that’s the job of management and any ‘recovery’ agent. It is incomprehensible that this option was not applied and a rush to merge etc was entertained. It smacks of opportunism of the most base kind not just by the administrators but Coram – which has acted with a moral turpitude not generally recognised in the care sector, particularly the childcare sector. It may never command the respect of many care professionals ever again as a result. The disposal of the services of BAAF by the administrators looks very suspect and I feel they can expect significant legal challenge in addition to unfair dismissal claims on account of the absence of a fair redundancy process. Shame on the Trustees, administrators and Judas Coram.