Family courts causing most adoption delays

Family court proceedings are the most significant cause of adoption delay, rather than a lack of adopters, weak planning or searches for 'perfect' ethnic matches, research by Ofsted has found.

Family court proceedings are the most significant cause of adoption delay, rather than a lack of adopters, weak planning or searches for ‘perfect’ ethnic matches.

A report by Ofsted, published today, examined 36 adoption cases across nine local authorities to identify the factors that delay successful adoptions.

Inspectors discovered social workers feel they lack credibility and status in the family courts and identified a “fragile relationship” between social workers and the judiciary.

Contrary to the problems usually referenced by the government – such as weak planning procedures, a lack of suitable adopters and social workers who wait too long for ‘perfect’ ethnic matches – the watchdog found the most prominent cause of delay was prolonged family court proceedings.

On average, the cases took 14 months to complete. Many had been delayed by repeat or late assessments of parents and other family members, the length of which often had a “measurable and adverse” impact on timely adoptions.

Delays were also caused by courts ordering multiple assessments, which duplicated other work and did not always contribute to a greater understanding of a child’s needs or result in different recommendations.

Other factors included a failure to intervene early enough and cases being left to ‘drift’ before care proceedings.

But there was little evidence that adoptions had been delayed because of social workers waiting for ‘perfect’ ethnic matches, while processes for matching children with adopters were found to be “generally robust”.

Cllr David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said the report highlights that “the heavy legal burden of care proceedings adds further delays”.

“We acknowledge there is a variation in performance across councils and recognise that at times the system has been risk averse, but we want to work with government to change that and remove barriers that delay decisions,” Simmonds said.

The report also identified good practice. This included a clear commitment to early planning in most cases – ensuring that if children could not go back to their birth family adoption processes were already in place.

Most adopters interviewed by inspectors were happy with the service they received. Although they had experienced some kind of delay, they did not feel it was significant.

Nearly all received a welcoming and sensitive response to their initial enquiries and felt their assessment was necessarily thorough.

“Social workers, the judiciary, Cafcass and other agencies need to work together to remove unnecessary delays,” said Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. “This report highlights the role of the courts and of expert assessments on causing delay.”

Directors will be keen to discuss Ofsted’s findings with the judiciary and Cafcass to help increase the speed of decision-making in the courts, Dunkley said.

He urged the government to make legislative changes so fundamental reforms proposed in the Family Justice Review can go ahead.

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