Over the past three years we have seen many more children finding permanent and loving homes through adoption. Directors of children’s services, local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies have responded brilliantly to the government’s adoption reforms.
First Michael Gove and Tim Loughton, and now Nicky Morgan and Edward Timpson, have been determined that when adoption is the best option for a child that we can secure that adoption in a timely manner. The results are clear, with a 63% increase in adoptions in just three years.
That’s why I’m so concerned that fewer children are being put forward for adoption. The change we have seen over the last nine months is nothing less than dramatic: local authority decisions to pursue adoption are down by 46%, while the number of placement order applications granted by the courts has more than halved.
These changes will, if they are not addressed, reverse the substantial progress made and damage life-long outcomes for some of our most vulnerable children.
Let me be clear: adoption is not right for every child, indeed adoption will only ever be right for a minority of children in care. But it is the right option for a significant number. And it is clear that in recent months adoption has not been pursued for some, even when social workers believe it is in the child’s interests.
As chair of the National Adoption Leadership Board (ALB), I have heard from practitioners working on the ground that these changes are in response to a number of high profile court judgements on care and adoption order cases, notably Re B and Re B-S. Much of what I have heard suggests a serious degree of misinterpretation of these judgements. These misinterpretations are damaging the life chances of some children
I have absolutely no issue with the judgements themselves, stressing as they do that adoption for any child has to be demonstrably the best option and recommended only when the child’s welfare demands it.
This is not a new test. I would never have put so much of my time into initiating the adoption reform programme were the test any less rigorous. But I fear that some local authorities are setting themselves a much harder test, which must be passed before adoption is pursued. That needs to be addressed urgently.
So, this week the National Adoption Leadership Board has issued myth buster guidance to councils – drafted for the ALB by a senior QC – on what the court judgements do and do not say and what this means for practice.
Before commissioning the guidance, I discussed the serious drop in adoptions with Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division of the High Court who made the Re BS judgement, and I have been extremely grateful for his advice. The myth buster has been shared with him, and he supports its aim of dispelling misconceptions about the recent case law on adoption.
The main myths are that:
• The legal test for adoption has changed: It hasn’t.
• To satisfy the Courts all alternative options to adoption must be considered: Not so. The evidence must address all options which are realistically possible.
• Adoption is only appropriate where nothing else will do: ‘Nothing else will do’ does not mean settling for an alternative which will not meet the child’s physical and emotional needs.
• Because it is a ‘last resort’ planning for adoption must wait until other options have been categorically ruled out. Not true. Local Authorities should plan at the earliest possible stage for the alternative of adoption where it seems possible that the child’s reunification with the family or care by other members of the family might not prove to be possible.
• The 26 week rule applies to placement orders. Since April any application for a care order or supervision order must be completed within 26 weeks but placement orders are not subject to the 26 week time limit.
The myth buster is being distributed to staff at all levels and across various disciplines in local authorities, Cafcass and the family justice system.
I urge all those involved in the adoption system to read it and reflect on how they as professionals, and their organisations, can make sure their practice and decision-making accurately reflects the judgments.
Our most vulnerable children deserve nothing less.