Councils setting numerical targets for adoption

Transparency Project findings are thought to be the first time councils have acknowledged using numerical adoption targets since national benchmarks were scrapped in 2008

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Moves by councils to set adoption targets risk damaging the perception families have of care decisions, experts have warned.

A Freedom of Information Act request by the Transparency Project to UK local authorities found 12 councils in England confirmed, sent or published documents showing that they use numerical targets for adoption.

Some local authorities provided an actual number of children in care they aimed to have had adopted each year. Others provided percentage figures.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said the issues were “nuanced and complex” and insisted adoption decisions were only made where they were in the best interests of a child.

Complicated

The Transparency Project, which aims to bring clarity to family law, made the FOI request in response to what it labelled “persistent but un-evidenced criticism” that targets were driving the “removal of ‘adoptable children, particularly babies”.

Lucy Reed, a family lawyer who chairs the Transparency Project, said she had anticipated that councils would lay these anxieties “to rest” but the responses ended up suggesting “the picture is more complicated”.

“Whilst we have found no evidence that individual social workers are performance managed by reference to targets, and some councils specifically denied this, it is clear that some councils operate their own internal targets for broader management and performance purposes,” said Reed.

“Campaigners have highlighted the risk that targets of this sort could potentially have an indirect effect on decisions about whether or not an individual child should be placed for adoption, but our study did not produce evidence that helps to answer this question.”

Unique

Targets to encourage faster placement of children for whom adoption has been identified as the right outcome were “unobjectionable”, Reed added.

“But targets to increase the absolute number or proportion of looked after children who are approved for adoption are in tension with the very clear law in this area that ensures that each child and family is treated as unique.”

Nagalro, a professional association for social workers and professionals in court proceedings, called the findings “a scandal waiting to happen” and “will damage the credibility of those who are genuinely trying to protect children” on twitter.

A detailed post on the Transparency Project site sets out the responses from councils.

Merton council told the charity: “Whilst we have a local target for adoption figures these are not broken down into individual targets for managers or social workers.”

Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the ADCS health, care and additional needs policy committee said: “Local authorities were challenged to increase the effectiveness of their adoption processes several years ago including increasing the number of adoptions as children were perceived to be waiting too long for adoptive parents or ending up missing the opportunity for adoption due to lengthy care proceedings.

“Some are likely to have set targets to increase adoptions if they have been challenged for the low number of adoption outcomes achieved. Irrespective of any targets in place the welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration during care proceedings and where adoption is not in the best interest of the child it will not be pursued.

“The ultimate safeguard is the court which will not agree to the removal of a child into care unless this can be evidenced to be right for the child and will not agree to adoption as a plan unless that is also believed to be right for the child.”

Targets

The charity also found Nottingham council had set itself “an ambitious target of ensuring that 55 children exit care with an adoption order by 31st March 2014” in documents it submitted to the Department for Education.

Cambridgeshire said it did not have targets other than national adoption scorecard data, however, it also sent the charity an earlier document which said: “If we continue to excel the target of 40 placements additional staff will be required.”

Seventeen councils had responded or published documents to say they had not used numerical targets. The Transparency Project expressed concern that “a lack of clarity and transparency about these issues are likely to be as important as the reality”.

Adoption targets did exist between 2000 and 2008, before the then Labour government scrapped them. The Transparency Project findings are thought to be the first time councils have disclosed the use of numerical targets since.

What the findings do and don’t say

Lucy Reed explains a bit more about the findings.

Is there evidence, that you may have seen in your work, of a preference for adoption that could be derived from local authority targets or the government’s focus on it?

“Whilst we have acknowledged the possibility that the targets we’ve found are influencing practice in the ways campaigners have suggested, our study does not provide evidence that it is in fact doing so.

“Despite our questions and concerns our study should not be taken as suggesting that the “adoption as baby snatching” narrative is made out, and we found no evidence of cash payments to individual workers in return for adoption as suggested recently on French media.”

“There is an on-going public debate about what form of permanence is “better” for children – adoption or special guardianship, and over the last few years we’ve seen quite a lot of adoption “lobbying”. We’ve noticed a tendency in pro-adoption rhetoric to fail to clearly distinguish between a desire for faster adoption and a drive for more adoption. We found a similar lack of clarity in the replies we received and in the descriptions of the targets local authorities are using and their rationale : Those councils who did refer to targets in replies or documents like dashboards and charts expressed them in terms of absolute numbers. Further, in their replies most councils did not specify how they had set that target or how they went about meeting it.  There were some notable exceptions such as Haringey who told us they set their target by looking at the cohort of children with a plan for adoption and those with placement orders, or Brighton who seemed to say it was numbers and performance driven. Where a council using targets did tell us something about how that target was calculated (such as Haringey) we have always documented that in our study report.”

How much would you say the government focus on adoption may have prompted local authorities to use numerical targets?

“It seems reasonable to assume that the Government focus on numbers to be adopted by way of the National Performance Management Framework (by comparison to say the Welsh Performance Management Framework) is likely to have played a part, though this is difficult to quantify.”

The blog post mentioned Ofsted’s role in inspecting adoption services. What do you think the inspector’s approach should be to inspections in the wake of these findings?

“This study stopped short of examining how Ofsted inspects on this statistic, if at all. Some replies indicated that this was a question worth asking but no more. We have not yet asked the question and may not have the resources to do so. Beyond that, this is not within the Transparency Project’s remit, but we would welcome work that made these issues more transparent, and that was able to clarify what is the real focus and actual impact OF targets on practice and decision making.”

The final decision still comes down to the judge and – even if there’s a scenario where numerical targets have made social workers make decisions to meet them and pursue adoption where it maybe isn’t right – would numerical targets actually increase adoptions with the judge’s oversight? Is this more of a trust and perception issue when families are questioning why the local authority is pursuing its preferred plan?

“We don’t know if or how targets are influencing practice at this stage of the system, or the extent of any such influence on numbers. However our study does not allow us to say that they aren’t having an influence, at least indirectly. This certainly leaves a significant trust and perception issue which may well affect some parents’ behaviour, in particular their response to intervention, and their ability to engage with and ask for help from social workers – and potentially the outcome of individual cases.

“Councils control the flow of cases to a judge. Judges control the flow of children that go on to adoption. It is possible that targets to improve the rate of successfully placing children for adoption are influencing decisions about which children should be put forward for adoption – if that were the case it might affect the overall numbers put forward or the characteristics of those children (for example children perceived as easy to adopt might be preferred to those perceived as trickier to place or at high risk of breakdown), but each child put forward would still be subject to approval by the court and sufficient evidence would be needed to justify the plan of adoption.”

2 Responses to Councils setting numerical targets for adoption

  1. Charley Atkinson November 18, 2016 at 5:53 pm #

    The reality of the situation with ‘risk of future emotional harm’ adoptions is that there will come a point when children learn why they were adopted, and some will as Dr. Peter Dale says ‘vote with their feet’, surely it makes sense to promote face to face contact maybe 4 times a year, and find ways to have natural and adoptive parents form a civil working relationship with each other? It would prevent some children from forming a disney like ideal of what their natural families are like in their heads, and seeing the natural parents on speaking terms with the adopters can only be a good thing surely? Now what with me being in natural parent support groups, I see plenty of people who are going to ‘give the truth’ to their children, and I don’t mean that they are saying that in a supportive way, but these are people, who like myself, will have been denied contact many times, and the anger over that is stewing. Therefore is it fair of adopters, in a case like mine (no abuse, no neglect) to expect that they can refuse contact time and time again, but that natural parents are to be expected to work with them in the future should the child ‘vote with its feet’?

  2. Kate Wells November 19, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    I have been retired from social work for 7 years so I’m not entirely up to speed with what is happening in LA Children’s Services. I have had the dubious pleasure of hearing ad infinitum over many years John Hemmings’s claims that babies are “stolen by social workers for adoption” and of course many birth parents believe this to be the case. Thankfully this research does not provide any evidence that this is the case.

    My own view for what it’s worth is that these “targets” are related to finance (or lack of it) There seems to be a lack of understanding in some respects that the tory government have swung a very large axe at the budgets of all public services, whilst pursuing their agenda of privatisation. The effects of these cuts can be seen in all aspects of social services (all service user groups) the NHS, education, police, fire service etc.

    I began my social work career in 1979 and it was obvious all those years ago that social services was under resourced to some extent but it wasn’t a major issue, as is the case today. Over the years I saw various practices come and go. Children were adopted but many children were placed with long term foster carers, or in residential care.

    The cuts began to bite some 5 years before I retired in 2004 and pressure was put on senior managers and passed down to middle managers to make savings in our budgets, in whatever way possible. I recall that one of the early methods used by senior managers for budget savings was to plan for specific children on a Care Order and placed with long term foster carers to return home. Team managers of the Children & Family teams were tasked with the job of perusing every child on every social worker’s caseload who fell into the category described, with a view to returning that child home. We were all horrified, given that these children had been removed from parents by court order and were settled in permanent foster families, especially as this was totally related to budget savings, and not in the best interests of the child. There were 7 geographical areas in the county in which I worked and there was widespread condemnation of this plan right across the county. The Deputy Director held a meeting to “address our concerns” – she pointed out that one of the issues that should be addressed at every LAC’s 6 monthly review was whether the child could return home. This was a fact but no-one could recall that a child was returned home, although a minority over the years had been returned home “on trial” though I have no statistics to offer. We all protested that this plan was totally related to budget savings, and as such was potentially putting a child at risk and disrupting his/her life. The DD smiled sweetly and talked of the family being the best place for the child and we had paid insufficient attention to this aspect contained in the 6 monthly review regulations. I recall challenging her that this plan was about budget savings and why did she not have the good grace to make this admission. She replied by woffling about budget constraints in all sections of the department. There followed a memo to all Team Managers that at least 1 child on every social worker’s caseload on a Care Order and placed with long-term foster carers was to be considered to be reunited with their family.

    I asked the DD who was going to be carrying out the assessment of the birth family of the child “selected” and what would be the nature of the assessment, to make a decision about the appropriateness (or otherwise) of the child selected. I asked how the child’s “wishes and feelings” were going to be taken into account and would social workers be requesting that courts revoke Care Orders of the children returned home, and in what timescale. I asked a great deal more (I think it ran to 4 or 5 A4 pages) and quoting legislation where necessary. There was no reply and it became obvious that none of these issues had been considered, as the only issue was budget saving. There was widespread consternation and I organised meetings and got NALGO involved and BASW and the plan was eventually dropped.

    Another issue that was solely about budget savings was related to Residence Orders. The IROs (Independent Reviewing Officers) who chaired the 6 monthly review of LAC suddenly began to ask long term foster carers if they had thought of applying for a Residence Order. I recall the first time I heard this brought up in a review and was astonished as were the long term foster carers………….I took up this issue with the IRO later and she advised that Snr Mngrs had issued directions to all IROs that this issue should be raised in reviews. Given that members of my team would be the “fostering social worker” for the long term foster carers it was very much my business to look into this issue – another potential cost saving plan! It was a totally unfair plan and to raise it in a review added insult to injury.

    We called a countywide meeting of all long term foster carers to advise them of the difference between long term fostering and Residence Orders. Of course for the dept there was a significant cost saving as the PR transferred from the LA to the holders of the RO and shared with the birthparents. Additionally there was the important issue of finance – whereas funding for approved foster carers was mandatory and included holiday/christmas/birthday expenses, any funding made in relation to a Residence Order was discretionary and as far as I recall there were no Regs specifically related to ROs. There was also the issue of support and once a RO was made the long term foster carers would be left to sort out any issues themselves, especially conflict with the birth family. Needless to say there were very few “takers” – but again this move was nothing to do with the best interests of the children and everything to do with finance.

    After I retired from the LA I worked independently for 5 years, mostly carrying out kinship care assessments, adoptions and SGOs for a neighbouring authority, and parenting assessments when appointed by the court. I began this work in Jan 2005 and in the year before SGOs were being implemented (Jan 2006) I discovered that the LA were putting an immense amount of pressure on families I had assessed as long term foster carers to apply for Residence Orders, obviously as a cost cutting exercise. I did my utmost to advise carers to think very carefully before agreeing to apply for a RO and pointing out the shortfall, especially in terms of finance. However the LA were not advising the carers that they had to apply for a RO, and I recall one family (who desperately needed fostering allowances and ongoing support with the birth mother) saying “they’ve out me down for a RO” – to make matters worse social workers were telling these carers that they would get paid fostering rates which was simply not the case. BUT it represented a considerable saving both in terms of LA involvement and financial allowances to the family. I did attempt to remonstrate with a manager from the LA that carers were not being given accurate information and believed they had no choice about the RO but she simply said that it was nothing more to do with me, which sadly was the truth.

    We saw a similar thing happening with SGOs though at least there were comprehensive Regs attached to the Orders and the PR was held more or less entirely by the relatives, save for 3 issues. However I am aware that there is a great deal of concern about funding attached to SGOs and a total lack of consistence in how LAs interpret the Regs related to funding.

    I also managed for a short time the County After Care Team and there was an acute shortage of supportive lodging providers for young people leaving the care system. I was once summed to the DD’s office and given a “target” to approve 10 providers of supportive lodgings within a set time. I don’t remember the detail other than the target was ludicrous. It was something like 10 families within 3 months. I advised her that would not be possible and would put my objections in writing, to which she told me she would not accept my objections!! The first one was that the then CRB checks that were obviously needed would not be returned within a 12 week period, as the timescales for these checks to be returned were around 20 weeks! I raised many more logical reasons why this “target” could not be fulfilled and the matter was quietly dropped. I did have to point out that the success or otherwise of a campaign to provide supportive lodging providers depended on people coming forward in the first place, in response to an advertisement, and then carrying out an assessment as to their suitability or otherwise. Research at the time told us that 10% of “first time accepters” would eventually go on to be approved under the scheme.

    In a rather long winded way I am trying to demonstrate that targets come and go and I am totally convinced that these adoption targets (no matter how optimistic) are related to finance.One LA mentioned in the research talked of a % of children EXITING care and being placed for adoption. This in my view is cost saving – huge saving on fostering allowances (especially if the LA is having to use an IFA – Independent Fostering Agency) and social work time in supporting foster carers, 6 month LAC reviews etc etc, finances related to contact with birth families, as opposed to an adoption placement – yes there is meant to be post adoption support but this is patchy and as with so many government initiatives, there is no new money attached to new duties. Some adoptors will be eligible for post adoption allowances but this is largely an admin task……..SO it’s a no brainer isn’t it……..let’s get these children out of foster care and into adoptive families, and let’s set targets to make sure those lazy social workers step up their recruitment campaigns and run more preparation courses and peruse the National Adoption Register every day!

    BUT there’s a big problem – whether we are talking about foster carers, kinship carers, adopters, Special Guardians, supportive lodging providers etc. Demand for placements outstrips supply and as this issue is about adoption, let’s look more closely at that – the vast majority of adopters want children under 5 – for obvious reasons. Even children 5 and over were (back in 2004) not attracting prospective adopters. I honestly don’t know if that has changed but I very much doubt it……………someone can dream up targets till kingdom come, but unless there are people out there who are going to come forward and go through the process and become approved – NO TARGETS ARE GOING TO BE MET. Unless of course there is a law that one family in every road has to become an adoptive family! Sorry I’m being silly but I do get very frustrated at this notion that you can have targets for adoption, and let’s be clear there is nothing in the research that indicates that “babies are being stolen” for adoption. That is just as ludicrous a concept as it was the first time JH started his conspiracy campaign. WHY on earth would social workers, who are struggling with overwhelming caseloads want to search out babies, build a case on a tissue of lies just so that they can get him adopted……..and the last para of Lucy’s piece says it all -a judge would still have to be convinced that a case had been made out on the basis of evidence to make a Placement Order.

    I think it was Haringey who said that their targets were on children whose care plan was for adoption and those with a Placement Order. Well that’s eminently sensible isn’t it. What’s the point of making a Care Plan and not trying to carry it out and a Court making a Placement Order and then no one trying to match the child with an adoptive family.

    I’m sure JH and his ilk and many birth parents will jump on this – “I told you so” but it doesn’t prove anything other than there are targets in some LAs for children IN THE CARE SYSTEM to be placed for adoption AS A COST SAVING EXERCISE.