Adoption tsar Martin Narey answers his critics

Since Community Care first broke the news that Martin Narey was tipped to become the government's first adoption tsar, our messages boards and emails have barely stopped buzzing.

Since Community Care first broke the news that Martin Narey was tipped to become the government’s first adoption tsar, our messages boards and emails have barely stopped buzzing. The outspoken former Barnardo’s chief has a reputation for causing controversy – his 2009 comments that social workers should take more children into care were widely criticised – and it is fair to say that he was not a universally popular choice for the role. Community Care readers have complained that Narey, a former prison service chief, is not a social worker and has never worked in adoption.

But it was Narey’s recent report on adoption, commissioned by and published by The Times, that really divided opinion. Among his wide-ranging recommendations, Narey urged local authorities to increase their adoption numbers, warning that those who failed to do so would be named and shamed, and said social workers should spend less time assessing “unsuitable” family and friends carers.

Social workers despaired at what they believed was an “aggressively pro-adoption stance”, which stereotyped them as anti-adoption, while family lawyers warned that reducing the time spent assessing family and friends carers would breach a child’s right to family life.

So Community Care decided it was time to give Narey an opportunity to defend himself and speak directly to the social workers and family court staff whose support will be key to achieving long-lasting reform. Describing his “passionate belief in adoption”, the 56-year-old was unapologetic about his pro-adoption stance – which some have called “evangelical” and “prescriptive” – but said he never intended to offend social workers, adding that some of his proposals had been interpreted too literally.

On the controversy surrounding his appointment:

I do understand people being irritated or sceptical because I’m not a social worker, but I’d like to think most of my social work staff at Barnardo’s would say warm things about me. I led Barnardo’s through a very successful five years and have spent a great deal of time listening to social workers. Over the years I have tried to put forward things they have told me. When I said more children needed to be taken into care I was treated like a lunatic, but I was just reflecting what social workers had told me. I will continue to do that. I haven’t worked in adoption but when I was at Barnardo’s nothing struck me harder than the reality of damage and neglect to children. Adoption can be utterly transformative, but our adoption numbers are falling. Last year just one twentieth of children in care were adopted.

On his report for The Times:

My postbag has been huge and full of warm words, but I know my report won’t please everyone. Although people may not agree, I hope they would acknowledge my passionate belief in adoption.

The report I did for The Times is entirely separate from my role for government. It is a good foundation for my role but it is not government policy and was never going to be. There was no collusion. The minister learned I was doing something for The Times but he didn’t ask to approve it and The Times gave me no steer as to what I should write.

On family and friends carers:

Let me be completely clear. I am not saying children shouldn’t stay within their wider family network when it is the right option. Many family and friends carers do a fantastic job, but I have seen problems with some family placements in my research. I also know of cases where courts disagree with an adoption decision and bring in family and friends carers, one after the other, even when at a glance they are completely unsuitable. That just causes more delay for a child.

On adoption targets:

We need to understand why different towns and cities have different adoption rates, and why some local authorities are better at improving their adoption rates than others, but we don’t need targets. We don’t necessarily need to see adoption rates double, but it is my estimate that if we make the system work better we will see adoptions double in the next two to three years.

On adoption delays:

We need to tackle delays and challenge negative attitudes towards adoption. On average a child will wait two years and seven months between coming into care and being adopted. That is scandalous. What I firmly believe is that when we know adoption is in the best interests of a child each part of the system needs to act quickly to make sure that a child does not wait longer than absolutely necessary.

Adoption breakdowns:

Research I cited in my report shows breakdowns are far less frequent than we are led to believe. We need more research but we know enough now to say that the one in three figure often quoted is nonsense. If that figure is dissuading courts and social workers from recommending adoption that is tragic.

On social workers:

Social workers are remarkable and dedicated and I don’t that, as a profession, they are anti-adoption, but it’s true some are. They believe it reflects a failure to heal a family. There’s no doubt that an optimism about fixing families has led to a fall in adoptions. Of course some families can improve and should be given a second or even third chance, just not a fourth fifth and sixth chance. Social workers working in adoption are utterly committed and frustrated by what they see as inefficient local authority and court processes.

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