Too Much Information?

It never rains but it pours. Last month, the government published
not one, but two sets of draft regulations aimed at shaking up the
adoption system (news, page 8, 13 November).

The draft adoption agency regulations and the suitability of
adopters regulations signal the government’s plan to shift the
balance of power from adoption professionals towards adoptive
parents and children. Announcing the draft regulations, children’s
minister Margaret Hodge said it was the first time in 20 years that
adoption law was being reviewed and she wanted to get it right: “I
want to make the process fairer and friendlier for prospective

It has been a busy time for the adoption sector. Just before the
draft regulations were published, new adoption support regulations
came into effect, as part of the Adoption and Children Act 2002.
Under these, local authorities now have far wider responsibilities
to adopters and adopted children. Councils are to provide some of
them with a range of support services, advice and information,
financial help and access to therapy.

A key proposal in the new round of regulations is for adoption
agencies to provide prospective adopters with comprehensive
information about the child they wish to adopt. This includes
details about their behaviour, their educational history, their
health, and the wishes of the child and, where appropriate, the
child’s parent or guardian.

Clearly, adopters will be better placed to meet a child’s needs if
they know their history. But there is a flipside to this, warns Wes
Cuell, the Association of Directors of Social Services’ lead on
adoption and Luton Council’s head of children and families
services. There is always a risk that if agencies do provide
additional information about a child, adopters will drop out of the
process. But he says: “If this happens it is a good thing. We have
got to get the right match between the carer and the child.”

Cuell adds that some prospective adopters are so focused on
adopting that they do not take in the full implications of taking
on a difficult child. “We need to make sure the way we communicate
information is improved so people hear and understand what they are
being told.”

A case involving Essex Council last year shows the need for sound
communication. A couple proved in court that the council had failed
to provide adequate information about a boy with behavioural
problems they had adopted. The council was ordered to pay damages
to the couple and the case has now gone to appeal. Mr Justice
Buckley said: “Any suggestion that a prospective adopter should go
ahead without the fullest information about the child in question
would be untenable, at least as a general proposition.”

So will stipulating that prospective adopters are given more
information stop placements from breaking down? Not necessarily,
says Deborah Cullen, secretary of Baaf Adoption and Fostering’s
legal group. “There is never a cast iron guarantee that a placement
won’t break down, as people don’t know everything about a child.
Some things may come out several years after an adoption has

Andrew Hale, a university lecturer from Worcestershire, has
first-hand experience of a placement breakdown. In the late 1980s
he and his wife adopted two half-brothers, then aged two and five,
who had been abused and neglected. The couple claim the former
Hereford and Worcester Council failed to tell them the boys were
likely to suffer attachment disorders as they grew up. Hale says
even if they had been warned of this they would still have taken
the boys. “There should be complete transparency and adopters
should be given as much information as possible about the child and
forewarned about any potential problems,” he says.

Hale acknowledges there is a danger that if more information is
passed on some children may be labelled as too difficult to manage
and become impossible to place. For these children, he calls for
different types of guardianship, such as long-term fostering with
additional support from social services.

West Sussex Council family placement service development manager
Peter Crawhurst says “telling the story, warts and all” will not
exclude children with problems from adoption. “We can find parents
who can take children on if we provide the necessary support.”

Parents should also receive more consistent support, preparation
and training from their adoption agency before they adopt,
according to the draft regulations. Such a move is prompted by the
inconsistent and often patchy pre-adoption support that exists
across the sector.

Providing ongoing training for adopters is part of the answer, says
Hale. He says parents should be trained in how to deal with
children who have experienced abuse and may develop attachment
disorder, or need help with anger management. Respite care is also
necessary for adopters so they and their children can have a break,
he adds.

Adopted children and their new parents should be helped to
negotiate their way around the education and health systems, and
receive practical support, such as therapy, says Cullen. “Some
adopters feel they go to the bottom of the waiting list along with
everyone else asking for help.”

Alongside the draft regulations, the government also announced
plans to establish independent review panels for prospective
adopters who are rejected by an adoption agency. The panels will
review the information on which the original adoption panel based
its decision. Baaf Adoption and Fostering has won the contract to
run the panels for three years, which will become operational in
April next year.

There is a risk that people turned away by an agency will still be
rebuffed by the new panels. But at least they should give
prospective adopters more confidence in the system. “They will know
that it’s not just one agency acting in a idiosyncratic way,” says
Cullen. Individuals should never go away from a panel being told
“they are no good or are deficient”, she adds.

However, Crawhurst doubts whether the independent review panel will
really receive that many challenges from disgruntled rejected
adopters. “The impact will be miniscule. From my experience
adoption panels and agencies aren’t turning down people

Taking children’s views about adoption into account is another
suggestion made by the draft regulations. It is increasingly common
for children who are old enough to be asked their views as this
makes the placement less likely to break down.

If children are to be more involved, says Crawhurst, although their
feelings must be taken into account they should not override the
decision-making process. “Decisions are made in the courts, by
professionals and the child’s parents, that are in their best
interests. They may not be able to reconcile the decision with
their conflicting emotions.” 

– The draft regulations are available from
Consultation ends in May 2004.

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