An overhaul of adoption in Scotland is proposed in a new bill announced by education minister Peter Peacock this week.
The bill is a “huge opportunity to benefit children,” said Barbara Hudson, director of Baaf Adoption and Fostering Scotland. Cathy Dewar, chief executive of the Scottish Adoption Association, called it a “milestone.”
There is still much detail to be thrashed out and uncertainty about how the bill will translate into practice. However the spirit and policy direction of the bill are applauded by the Scottish charities.
The bill is intended to “improve, modernise and extend” adoption and therefore provide greater stability for looked-after children, according to the government.
The bill is based on recommendations made by an adoption policy review group set up by the Scottish executive in 2001.
Key points are:
• Introduction of new permanence orders, in between adoption and fostering.
• Improved adoption support services.
• Allowing joint adoption by unmarried couples, including gay people. (Currently only one person in an unmarried couple can adopt).
The Scottish executive’s own figures show that over the last 20 years, adoptions fell from around 1,000 a year to less than 400. Just over half are by adopters not related to the child.
Numbers of people prepared to adopt a child who is not a relation are therefore small.
But thousands of children need permanent homes.
6,500 children are in care in Scotland. Of these, about 3,500 are in foster care, 1,500 live with friends or relatives and 1,500 in residential homes.
Dewar at the Scottish Adoption Association believes the drop in adoptions is “part of a change in society.”
Fewer children are available for adoption now and they are older than in the past, said Dewar. Her association only arranges adoptions for four or five babies a year.
The flow of people prepared to adopt older children has dwindled steadily.
The adoption bill addresses the fact that adoption agencies today are working with children who have complex problems and needs, requiring intense support. Agencies are not working with babies adopted shortly after birth but vulnerable young people with difficult experiences.
Adoption could be too final and inflexible - or unsuitable - for these young people, who might for instance want to retain contact with birth parents.
The new permanence orders could offer a solution.
The idea is to offer children stability, but with the flexibility to vary orders according to an individual child’s needs. Permanence orders will replace freeing orders and parental responsibilities orders.
The orders “will make it easier for long-term plans to be made for children. It will also mean foster carers can share some of the responsibility for day to day decisions, which will help these children feel part of their foster family,” said Hudson.
Under the current system, responsibility for looked-after children can be shared between birth parents, Scotland’s children’s hearings system and the local authority. This means foster carers must seek permission from the local authority and birth parents for holidays abroad, school trips, health care and so on.
Director of Fostering Network Scotland, Bryan Ritchie, descibed the new orders as “innovative” but said there are “many issues to be clarifed on how they will work in practice.”
He welcomed giving more day to day power to foster carers.
Dewar agreed it is not yet clear what permanence orders will precisely consist of.
“They should be tailored to fit individual children. If that works it will be wonderful,” she said.
The bill proposes better support for adopted children and families, including natural grandparents.
The Scottish executive says access to post-adoption support varies between local authorities. There is also a “lack of clarity” about who is entitled and ignorance about what is available.
Baaf says support could include counselling, extra educational input, health care, therapeutic services, training and meetings with other adoptive families. The charity will also raise the issue of financial help for adopters during the bill’s committee stage.
Baaf, the Scottish Adoption Association and the Fostering Network all call for support services to be well funded.
Ritchie at the Fostering Network is concerned that the bill has no measures to recruit and retain foster carers. His charity estimates that Scotland faces a shortage of at least 1,700 foster families and has called for greatly enhanced support for carers, including setting of allowances.
Improving support for foster carers could save money. Scottish executive figures show that local authorities pay an average of £106 per week per child in foster allowances. Keeping children in residential care, costs an average weekly £1,467.
Earlier this month the executive announced it will develop a national fostering strategy but detail is to come.
“We were promised a comprehensive review of fostering legislation back in 2001 and are disappointed it wasn’t in the adoption bill,” said Ritchie.
Baaf’s Hudson says you cannot legislate for recruiting new carers.
“We need to create a climate where people become interested and wonder if adoption or fostering might be for them,” she says.
Hudson believes offering carers increased support and flexibility, as proposed in the bill, is likely to stimulate interest.
Finding and retaining new families for looked-after children is slow and intensive work, so the enthusiasm – with caveats – that has greeted the fresh thinking in the bill is perhaps not surprising.