Few placements in first year casts doubts over register’s usefulness

Publication of the Adoption Register’s first annual report last
week confirmed what most of the sector already knew: that the
register had experienced a difficult year.

Just six months after it became fully operational, professionals
were saying the register was not having the impact they had hoped –
few children awaiting adoption and prospective parents were being
“matched” through links it suggested, data were too simplistic and
procedures not robust enough.

The register, which is run for the Department of Health by
children’s charity Norwood, was set up in August 2001 with an
annual budget of £633,000. During the first 18 months – there
was an eight-month development and pilot period – there were 1,800
proposed links suggested by the register to local authority and
voluntary adoption agencies. It holds records of 3,000 adopters and
3,200 children awaiting adoption referred to it by 120 agencies,
and has collated statistics on adoption trends.

The bottom line is that, of the 600 viable links suggested by the
register, only 30 progressed to the child being placed with parents
with a view to an adoption taking place – a “conversion” rate of
one in 20.

Regardless of this, the register’s director, Ruth Fasht, says its
job is to “propose links, not make matches”, and does not know
whether its success will ultimately be judged on how many more
adoptions it facilitates.

“New projects take time, but the register is becoming embedded in
the culture,” says Fasht. “For the first time we can get a detailed
analysis of placement needs of children.”

However, not included in the annual report but mentioned on the
register website, is a statistic that shows that, of the 600 viable
links, 450 came to nothing.

“It is only as good as the data fed into it,” says Fasht. She
admits there have been difficulties in agencies filling in referral
forms properly.

“It is a fairly simple form, which was agreed by all the
stakeholders in consultations, but we still have to send a lot of
forms back,” she adds.

Forms contain details of a child’s background, age and gender,
ethnicity, contact details and their special needs. Agencies should
refer children and adopters to the register no later than nine
months after approval.

“We rely heavily on agencies updating us on the changing needs of
children,” says Fasht. “We often find that, when we go back to
agencies to propose a link, a local adopter has been found and the
register hasn’t been informed.”

The need for agencies to inform the register of any changes is
paramount if it is to work effectively. However, it has led to
calls by some for the register to be more proactive in making this

Fasht says relationships with agencies have been good. However,
health minister Jacqui Smith still felt it necessary in the annual
report to “remind” agencies of their obligation to ensure
information is passed on.

“Clearly it is important for agencies to keep the register
up-to-date, but I think it needs to be more proactive with agencies
locally on getting information,” says Jane Held, director of social
services at Camden Council and joint chairperson of the children
and families committee of the Association of Directors of Social

She says it is possible to give the register material as care
proceedings progress, but it is likely to change regularly and be
limited in what it says. “It is a very different thing if the
register wants constant updates and to be involved in case

She criticises the register process as complex and bureaucratic and
suggests forms should follow the Form F used by adoption
professionals to assess children “a bit more closely”. However,
although Held says there are no excuses for poor quality
assessments, the register should go back to agencies and say “this
is not good enough”.

Another problem experienced by the register is the varying quality
of information given to it by agencies. An example of this is that,
although an initial scan of files may show several families able to
meet the needs of a child, many are quickly ruled out after contact
has been established.

Fasht says more consistency is needed in the assessment and
approval process of adopters and a working party is due to publish
new guidelines on it.

There can be little doubt that the children on the register are
some of the hardest to place: they are often older, in sibling
groups, from ethnic minority backgrounds or have experienced abuse.

“The register has been working doubly hard for a smaller number of
children,” Fasht says. “But if we can concentrate on the most
hard-to-place children that is a very good function.”

She says the underlying fact is that there are “simply not enough”
people prepared to adopt children with special needs.

Fasht says that comparing the register to Baaf Adoption and
Fostering’s Be My Parent service – which made 221 matches in
2002-3, an increase of 48 per cent on the previous year – is not
comparing “apples with apples”.

She points out that councils pay for the latter, and its matches
included 44 sibling groups of two children, 10 groups of three and
four groups of four.

Felicity Collier, Baaf chief executive, says: “Baaf’s own
experience has shown that matching requires work by all involved
which focuses on overcoming the barriers to placement – which means
being creative, resourceful, unlocking potential and providing

Norman Goodwin, immediate past chairperson of the Consortium of
Voluntary Adoption Agencies, says this could suggest the register
has been a “backward step”. However, he says that, again, it may be
down to the failure of the system to capture accurate information.
“How viable [in terms of suggesting links] is viable?” he asks.
“I’m not sure how accurate a picture that is of the number of
families it has got [records of].”

Goodwin believes the register should encourage agencies to send in
details of adopters more quickly.

Fasht says the shortage of adopters is so great that the register
has suggested to some agencies that particular older children or
those with special needs may never be adopted, in effect
recommending a change in care plan.

“If we are satisfied that all family finding has been undertaken we
will say to them that statistically it looks unlikely that this
child will find a family,” Fasht says, adding that the adoption
community wants feedback on care plans.

“I think the voluntary agencies have got hold of this message and
councils will follow suit,” she says.

This concerns Collier who says: “We must never give up too quickly
[on adoption] when that is the plan assessed to best meet the
child’s needs.”

According to Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK, part of the
reason for the register’s problems could be poor promotion.

“We know a lot of adopters don’t know about the register and are
not informed about it when they are going through the assessment
process. That would indicate some agencies have difficulty working
with it,” says Pearce.

This “modesty” has encouraged agencies to turn to other services,
such as Be My Parent, before the register, says Goodwin.

But Cherry Harnott, manager of Portsmouth Council’s adoption
service and a member of the Adoption and Permanence Taskforce, says
the register is only one of several routes open to agencies.

Fasht is “confident” there will be an “increase in outcomes for
children” in coming years, and nobody seems to be writing the
register off after just one year.

But Goodwin warns that professionals in the sector are not
positive. “These figures will fuel people’s uncertainty,” he says.

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