Adoption tsar Martin Narey: I do listen to social workers

Martin Narey has faced criticism since his appointment as the government's first adoption tsar from those who believe he has not listened to frontline social workers. But in an exclusive piece for Community Care, he explains how the views of social workers have been central to his recommendations

Martin Narey has faced criticism since his appointment as the government’s first adoption tsar from those who believe he has not listened to frontline social workers. But in this exclusive piece for Community Care, he explains how the views of social workers have been central to his recommendations

I thought I had retired last year. I was looking forward to doing a little writing, perhaps, or taking a gap year, which my children enjoyed but were unheard of when I graduated in 1977.

That changed last year when The Times asked me to write about adoption and the education secretary, Michael Gove, and children’s minister, Tim Loughton, asked me to advise them on adoption policy. Since then adoption has dominated my life.

I’ve allowed it to, not because I’m paid extravagantly – as one newspaper mischievously suggested last year – but because I believe few things can improve the lives of disadvantaged children in the way adoption can. For the record, over nine months and, despite the reality that there is almost never a day when I do not do some work on adoption, my total pay before tax or pension contributions has been £41,000.

Not everyone agrees with my view of the adoption world. And that’s fine. I’m very happy to engage on the issues. I’m less happy to be dismissed – as one blogger from one university did last year – because I graduated from a polytechnic. Or because I’m an ex-prison officer – as a correspondent in a magazine did only last week. Or to be told I know nothing about disadvantage and care – as many have suggested – because I’m not a social worker.

Social work is not the only career that opens a window on disadvantage. The 23 years I spent working with offenders, particularly the 2-3,000 children we lock up each year, were the foundations for much of what I have since said and written about childhood. This includes the regrettable need for us to intervene more swiftly to stem the damaging effects of child neglect and abuse.

But the accusation which irritates me most, perhaps, is that I don’t listen to social workers. The irony of that is hard to convey. When I left the world of offenders in 2005 to become chief executive of Barnardo’s, I was driven by a belief that it was local authority care which damaged children. Taking children into care needed to be avoided at almost any cost, I thought.

Listening to social workers changed that view. Somewhere in the north of England is a social worker, whose name I never knew, who approached me in 2006 after a conference where I had praised councils with proportionately modest numbers of looked-after children. She told me, tearfully, that I was wrong and that too much of her professional life was about observing neglect, so unfashionable was it to contemplate removing a child from their birth parents. She was the first to make that point to me, but not the last. And she was right.

Since my appointment as the government’s so-called adoption tsar, Community Care has put it to me that readers feel listening has stopped, and that social workers have been given no chance to contribute to the debate. In fact, I have spent more than eight working weeks inside 20 local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies. Each time I took the opportunity to ask those on the frontline what needs to change.

My proposals for a swifter assessment process for adopters grew directly from the time I spent in Kent. The priority I have given to giving adopters much greater certainty about post-adoption support grew, initially, from a visit to Family Futures. I’ve just started some work on the challenges facing siblings in need of adoption. That grew from a visit to North Yorkshire. My determination to find more flexible ways of offering respite care to adopters came from a visit to Leeds.
This is not to suggest that adoption workers and I have always agreed during our discussions. We haven’t. But we have more often than not. One director wrote to me after what staff had expected to be a difficult visit and said social workers found me, “respecting of their views and expertise. They felt listened to, as well as challenged”.

And almost all I have written and said, including everything I have put to Tim Loughton, Michael Gove and David Cameron, has been informed by the views of adopters – whom I have met in their hundreds and who write to me or email me almost every day. They know better than any of us the realities and challenges of adoption and their voices have not been heard loudly enough. I make no apology for seeking to change that.

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