Findings cast doubt on government belief that adoption is best answer

A review of research on the impact of different care settings on
children’s well-being has raised questions over whether adoption is
being overused.

Researchers from four universities in England and Wales have
concluded that there needs to be caution in assuming that adoption
is the best option for all children in care (news, page 12, 11

The study, commissioned by the Social Care Institute for
Excellence, also finds that the potential for increasing the number
of adoptions “may be limited”.

Although only a small part of the 113-page report, which focuses
mainly on foster care outcomes, the findings are important because
they question the validity of the government’s policies to
prioritise adoption over other forms of care.

The prime minister has personally backed the campaign to promote
adoption and several initiatives make adoption a priority. These
include concurrent planning (where a child, whose future with their
birth parents is undecided, is placed with foster carers who are
also approved adopters) and the Quality Protects scheme which is
aimed at looked-after children as part of the government’s social
exclusion strategy.

The Department of Health’s own performance indicator for social
services states: “The government believes more can and should be
done to promote the wider use of adoption which offers the only
legally secure placement for children unable to return to their

Despite this, the review of about 280 studies led the researchers
to conclude that the potential for increasing adoptions may be
limited. This is because “the UK is already high in any
international league table for the number of adoptions; older
children are often implacably opposed to adoption; and there are
family rights issues for younger children”.

Recent figures may support this. Between 1998, when Quality
Protects was launched, and 2002, the number of children adopted
from care rose from 2,200 to 3,500. But between April 2002 and
March 2003, the rate of increase began to slow. Last year saw a 3
per cent rise compared with 12 per cent in the previous two years.
Yet the government is optimistic that the 40 per cent target will
be met.

Cherry Harnott, a member of the Adoption and Permanence Taskforce,
is less convinced. She agrees with the researchers’ finding that
there is a limited potential for further increasing the number of
looked-after children likely to be adopted.

She says: “There remains a significant mismatch between the high
number of families seeking to adopt very young children and the age
and type of children needing adoption for whom families have not
yet been found.”

Felicity Collier, chief executive of Baaf Adoption and Fostering,
says it is right that adoption should be seen as the preferred
route for lifelong permanence for children who cannot return home.
But delays in the assessment process can sometimes make it
difficult to find them homes as they become older.

Improved financial support for children – such as extending care
grants to adopted children at the age of 18 – could help make
adoption more appealing, she adds.

In terms of outcomes for children, the study concludes that, “all
things being equal”, adoption may be preferred to long-term
fostering “since it offers adopted children greater emotional
security, sense of well-being and belonging”.

There is much evidence to suggest that people adopted as infants
can be as successful as any member of the community. This supports
the commonly held desire for parents to adopt children at an early

But the picture becomes less clear as children get older. It is
widely known that the older the child, the more difficult they are
to place. But the researchers also find that most studies support
the theory that over-10s are far more likely to have a disrupted

The study says: “Below the age of 11, the younger the child at
placement, the more likely the placement is to be successful on all
measures, with a breakdown rate for ‘stranger adoptions’ of around
20 per cent for those placed at eight years old, rising to around
50 per cent for those placed around age 10 or 11.”

And the breakdown rate among those adopted in their teens is
probably as great as those placed for long-term fostering at that
age. The researchers speculate that reasons for the high breakdowns
could be that there is less “competition” among potential parents
for harder-to-place children, expectations of adoptive parents may
be higher and disappointment greater if these are not met and
social work support for more difficult cases may be lacking.

The findings could also support concerns among children and
families practitioners that the government’s view of adoption is
pressuring social workers to put children forward inappropriately.
The government has set local authorities targets to increase the
number of adoptions by 40 per cent by 2004-5 and 50 per cent by
2005-6 on 1999-2000 levels.

Penny Thompson, co-chairperson of the Association of Directors of
Social Services children and families committee, says such targets
should not be interpreted as the government prioritising adoption
over other solutions. “It is important to make it clear that the
research is known and does inform practice. Each adoption decision
is made on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the needs of each

Meeting a child’s needs rather than government targets should be
the priority for deciding the care plan for children, the Fostering
Network’s head of services, Sue Gourvish, says.

“Where it is clear a child will not be able to return to live with
their own family, a plan for that child’s future must be made and
implemented swiftly. For some, this will mean a new family via
adoption, but for others – particularly older children – living
with a foster carer on a long-term basis can provide them with good
quality and stable care while allowing them to maintain important
ties with their family.”

Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK, says there is a “limit to
the usefulness” of asking whether adoption or fostering is the
“better” plan for children seeking permanence because neither will
always meet the needs of children in care.

“The report is right to say we should be cautious about assuming
adoption is always best, but for many children it is the most
appropriate form of placement and one offering the highest chance
of success,” he says.

Pearce adds that there will always be difficulties in making
adoption work for older children and those with complex needs, but
that does not mean it should be disregarded.

“Disrupted placements have often happened because of the lack of
appropriate support services for adopters, allied with delays in
decision-making about looked-after children and a failure to share
information with adopters.”

He says recent government policies have tried to address these

Collier says the key to permanence is minimising the number of
moves a child has in care. “Moving from a number of care settings
has an impact on their ability to develop strong attachments. The
evidence is that younger children in permanent families are more
likely to do well in their lives and be fulfilled.”

She adds that children and carers often prefer adoption too – 15
per cent of children from the care system were adopted by their
foster carers last year.

The development of concurrent planning and conversion of long-term
fostering placements could help broaden the number of children
benefiting from adoption, but it remains unlikely that it will make
this a viable option for those hardest-to-place children. CC

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