Councils must provide post-adoption support but is this being applied evenly across the UK

The multiple needs of children adopted from the care system makes post-placement support crucial to the success of any adoption.

Jonathan Pearce, director of Adoption UK, says: “They are likely to have experienced some form of trauma, which can affect their ability to form relationships and may influence their later educational development. Many will need therapeutic help.”

Although the Adoption Act 1976 placed councils under a duty to provide post-adoption support, the government’s 2000 white paper Adoption: A New Approach identified “very little support” for adopters and inconsistent provision between councils. As a consequence, one in five placements broke down before the child was legally adopted.

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 was designed to address this. It placed councils under a duty to maintain a set of adoption support services, including financial support, advice and information, therapeutic services for adopted children, support groups for both children and parents and support to maintain the relationship between children and their birthparents.

It also obliged councils to have a named person responsible for post-adoption support to assess the needs of adoptive families for services.

However, councils were not forced to provide services assessed as being needed, and could reasonably refuse on resource grounds. The provisions came into force in October 2003 in England, and in October 2004 in Wales. Between 2003-4 and 2005-6, English councils received £70m in ring-fenced grants to implement post-adoption support.

But implementing the act’s ambitions is not easy. The experience of Susannah Williams, adoptive parent to two daughters with Down’s syndrome, suggests there is room for improvement. She received little assistance and suggests social workers’ workloads make it difficult for them to keep in touch.

Pearce says that the new framework, which requires councils to consider what needs a child might have now or in 10 years’ time, necessitates a “cultural change for social workers who, in the past, used to hand children over to adoptive families and then let go”.

Lyndsey Marshall, manager of the adoption support agency After Adoption Yorkshire, is uncertain whether legislation is sufficient to achieve this change, adding: “There’s still so much goodwill required to make it work.”

John Coughlan, director of children’s services at Hampshire Council, suggests the legislative changes are so far-reaching that it will take time for them to be embedded in practice. It has also been a time of significant change for children’s services generally, on the back of the Children Act 2004.

Marshall suggests a lack of stability has been a barrier to improving support: “If you’re trying to change post-adoption, you need a foundation of services stable enough to pick up the issues. I don’t know if that’s there.”

And despite the ring-fenced grant, Pearce says councils have problems finding money to fund adoption support services.
Coughlan agrees that money remains an issue, adding: “The law is welcome but there is still the potential for demand to outstrip funding.”

Nevertheless, Pearce cites some imaginative use of funds by local authorities such as help with a one-off payment for extending the house or buying a bigger car for parents adopting a sibling group, or payments to help those who need to take extended maternity or paternity leave.

In one case, an authority, when it knows that a child is likely to have significant therapeutic needs in the future, can make regular payments to the family under a detailed contract. If the child doesn’t need help, the parents pay the money back, but they know the money is there if and when they need it. “That’s a very innovative way of providing support,” he says.

But councils have no obligation to provide financial support. “People may have hoped for a nationally understood framework for the allowances,” says Marshall, “to create more consistency. But that hasn’t happened. There is still a lot of variation between areas.”

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 was meant to correct these variations and improve adoption support but despite some positive signs it has yet to boost services nationally.

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