Outside chance

The Department of Health is favouring a small charity to run the
national adoption register instead of the front runner, British
Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. Sarah Wellard asks why.

Any unexpected decision by the Department of Health is bound to
become a focus of speculation. And so it was with the announcement
last month that the Jewish charity Norwood Ravenswood is preferred
bidder for the national adoption register.

The register is a key element in the government’s strategy for
reducing delays in adopting children from care and will contain
details of all approved families waiting to adopt, as well as
children needing families.

Almost everyone had been expecting the contract to go to British
Agencies for Adoption and Fostering. As the representative of both
local authority and independent adoption agencies the agency has a
strong reputation and high profile.

BAAF has also been operating BAAF-link, a prototype national
register since 1995, receiving referrals of around a 1,000 children
a year. BAAF’s bid was put together in conjunction with Adoption
UK, a parent-led organisation providing support to adoptive
parents. The original concept was to run a helpline alongside the
register to provide people with advice about the often bewildering
experience of being approved as potential adopters. But the
helpline idea was dropped when it became clear it would cost more
than the DoH was willing to pay.

So why is the department favouring Norwood Ravenswood over BAAF?
The health minister John Hutton said only: “The bid by Norwood
Ravenswood was particularly strong and met all the necessary
specifications.” A spokesperson for the DoH added that the bid was
felt to represent best value for money and could be delivered
quickly because it would use off-the-shelf software.

Ruth Fasht, director of Norwood Ravenswood and Norwood Adoption
Society, believes the organisation’s experience of recruiting
families and placing children from a large number of local
authorities is a significant plus. She says: “The register is about
looking holistically at children and families. We’re a
community-based organisation with a wide spread of services. We
have a specialised computer system which has been tried and tested
in other consortia. I guess they thought we would be

Even so, the choice of a faith-based organisation with a low
profile in the adoption world and no track record in running an
adoption database is raising a few eyebrows.

There is a strong suspicion that price is a big factor. BAAF
wanted a bespoke system, because it believed this would produce the
extensive statistical information required to pinpoint mismatches
between children’s profiles and approved families.

Karen Irving, director of independent adoption agency Parents
for Children, who also submitted a bid for the register, believes
the decision may also reflect a desire by the department to do
things differently. She says: “There are new brooms in the DoH
looking at adoption. BAAF is a broad church and it has to make sure
its constituency is happy. The DoH may be wondering whether there
are vested interests in BAAF’s operations.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive of BAAF, says she was very
disappointed that it was not chosen, but is keen to offer her
support to Norwood Ravenswood. She is also anxious to squash any
speculation that the decision represents a cooling off in the
organisation’s close relationship with the DoH. She says: “We have
been advised by the minister [John Hutton] that he didn’t want this
to be taken as a reflection on BAAF.” She points out that BAAF’s
core grant – £160,000 a year – has just been renewed for three
years and that BAAF has also been given the jobs of co-ordinating
consultation on draft adoption standards and of writing the new
code of practice.

Inevitably, the decision is a blow for BAAF, which is now likely
to have to make the staff running BAAF-link redundant. The
organisation also invested a lot of time in formulating a proposal
which Collier believes could make a real difference in the adoption
process. She says: “All the families approved would be on the
register. For the first time we would have a good coherent source
of statistical information.”

Better information will facilitate targeted recruitment of
families for difficult to place children – like sibling groups and
older boys. It will also help identify in which areas recruitment
of families is more effective so that best practice may be

Others remain unconvinced that a computer system can really
achieve such a big difference. Ann van Meeuwen, adoption adviser
for Barnardo’s, believes the register might have proved a poisoned
chalice for BAAF because it would have made it harder for it to be
critical of the government. “We do think there is a role for the
register. It’s a way of making the most of the resources that you
have got. But so much hope is invested in it. I don’t think it
would be the solution to increasing adoptions from care,” she

Jim Richards, director of the Catholic Children’s Society
(Westminster), is equally sceptical. “I think it was a
headline-grabbing idea,” he says.” There’s a danger of technology
diverting us from the real issues, like demographic changes which
make it harder to recruit families, and not enough money being put
into post-adoption support to help people taking on damaged

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