The fall in placement orders is not a problem, but government rhetoric on adoption is

Andy Elvin argues that a rise in special guardianship is not as big a problem as the government's promotion of adoption as the only good permanence option

by Andy Elvin

David Cameron recently said on adoption: “It is a tragedy that there are still too many children waiting to be placed with a loving family – we have made real progress but it remains a problem.”

This comment is inaccurate and insulting. Children in excellent foster homes are not waiting to be placed with a loving family – they are with a loving family who are meeting their needs, caring for them, helping them recover from trauma and offering stability and continuity. The same is true for children placed with relatives.

The narrative of ‘adoption is great and other options are lesser’ is unhelpful and inaccurate. Many children who come into public care go on to achieve amazing outcomes whether adopted, fostered, placed with relatives or in residential care.

Adoption legislation untouched

The latest Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that 75% of children in care are in foster placements and only 5% are in adoptive placements.

Each case before the family courts is complex, unique and comes with its own set of options for the child. The capacity for change of the birth parents, the strength or weakness of the extended family, the age of the child, ethnicity, whether it is a sibling group or only child and additional needs all play a part in circumscribing the permanence options available. It is the family courts’ role to pick carefully through these complex situations and find a solution that is in the best interests of the child over their lifetime.

The truth is that the rise in special guardianship orders (SGOs) is not a problem, nor is the fall in placement orders for adoption. There is no call to do anything about adoption legislation. The DfE should instead be concentrating on supporting all forms of permanence to make sure they last positively throughout childhood and on into adult life.

Measuring local authorities’ success in terms of adoption numbers is ludicrous. They need to be measured in terms of outcomes for all children and young people entering care, and how they are doing in achieving permanence in all of its forms. Adoption is just one great option. An SGO with committed grandparents or uncles and aunts is another, as is an SGO with foster carers and stable long-term foster care, especially if the DfE engages intelligently in sorting out the implementation problems with Staying Put.

The family courts would be greatly assisted if they knew that whichever permanency option is right for each child could be chosen safe in the knowledge that timely, expert and assured post-order support would be available for each family, no matter the legal order.

Critical of foster and kinship care

The current focus on adoption ignores the 95% of children who come into the care system for whom adoption is either not appropriate or available.

This weighted promotion of one form of permanence is not doing adoption any favours, as the Prime Minister’s rhetoric is implicitly critical of foster care and kinship care in its efforts to promote adoption.

I fear the tone of the present debate is counterproductive, especially in the reaction it provokes in local authorities and the wider care sector. I also suspect that the proposed new regional adoption teams which will separate them from teams dealing with SGOs and foster care will not help in this. Pre- and post-permanence work needs to be joined up to ensure excellent outcomes for all vulnerable children.

What is needed is a national post-permanency support fund available to all supporting a permanent placement. Local authorities should be required to set up permanency teams that cover foster care, adoption and SGO placements. These teams will assess potential foster carers, adopters and extended family members to care for vulnerable children. These teams will also offer high quality post-placement support which will be available as a right. Adopters, foster carers and relatives are looking after the same cohort of children, so they should all be equally supported.

Permanency orders

The government should bring into England and Wales the permanency order available in Scotland that legally recognises that long-term foster care is an excellent permanency option for many children in care, and one that should be valued, protected and supported. The extension of Staying Put to all children in care is also a must – and it will be a scandal if Martin Narey’s review into residential care does not recommend this.

The DfE must also focus on children subject to multiple placement moves, and bring in a requirement that any case of a child who has more than three placements must be notified to Ofsted. A formal case review could then be held to ensure that the right placement is identified and resourced. Some placement moves are in the best interests of children but too often they are a consequence of not identifying a permanent placement soon enough. Multiple placements are toxic to children and lead to poor outcomes.

Achieving great outcomes for vulnerable children is not a competition between adopters, foster carers, extended family members and residential care – it is an endeavour in which each of these plays its part.

Andy Elvin is the chief executive of TACT Fostering & Adoption.

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3 Responses to The fall in placement orders is not a problem, but government rhetoric on adoption is

  1. BuddhaPest November 16, 2015 at 12:49 pm #

    I agree with all of this.

    SGOs are NOT replacing adoption orders. The massive research study into SGOs that Jim Wade carried out for the DfE (published last year) showed that the local authorities that had a high rate of adoptions were the same ones that used SGOs the most. Local authoritiies that are oriented towards permanency are making whatever order is best for the children vwho need it.

    Cameron’s reference to ‘distant unsuitable relations they have never met’ is also inaccurate and insulting. There are many grandparents (and others) who are being denied contact with children who are at risk and being abused, and who are desperate to step in when the children need them.

  2. Andrew November 17, 2015 at 8:57 am #

    Let’s not kid ourselves what Cameron is really on about here, and it’s not about improving the lives of children.

    His whole government operates on the ideas that there are two types in the UK: the “hardworking families” who the Tories and their media mates classify as good and the “welfare claiming skivers” who they calls as bad. What Cameron and his pals believe is that this will never change (and they have no interest in promoting change) and so the answer is to remove children from the bad families and place them with the good families.

    Along the way he gets the added bonus of being able to portray this as a failure by Local Government which aids the Tory crusade to give services to their friends in the private sector to make a little profit.

    If Cameron was really interested in children he wouldn’t be making all the cuts to services.

  3. Chris Akrill November 19, 2015 at 8:49 pm #

    I have worked in Children’s Services for over 35 years, in child protection and LAC. I have placed many children for adoption. I would like to raise the following points as a caution to the current drive to place children for adoption.

    When I first started work in Social Services (mid ’80’s) I truly believed I was making things better by giving children a new life and identity through adoption and saving them from their dysfunctional birth families. Over the course of my career I have met many children placed for adoption by the courts, including some of those whose futures I was instrumental in planning. Sadly, a lot of them appear to have struggled and seem confused about their feelings and their identity. Many have had mental health problems and have found it difficult to cope under pressure. A lot have contacted/returned to their birth families, with whom they no longer have any legal connection!

    Some children relate harrowing tales of having their, possibly fairly normal, rebellious teenage behaviour referred back to the difficulties of their birth parents (e.g. you can tell where you came from!) and have struggled to fit in with the expectations of their adoptive parents. Almost always the difficulties have begun to emerge with adolescence and are often, despite therapeutic interventions, irreconcilable.

    One has to consider whether something much more primeval is at work….

    When things start to go wrong, and the adopted children no longer meet the expectations of the adoptive family, and frequently the extended family of the adoptive parents the adoption is at risk of break down. There is sometimes little to bind the children to the family and to make rehabilitation a worthwhile option. They can end up rootless -not properly recognised by the adoptive family but separated from their blood relatives. Often this is not recognised immediately and the adopters try hard to make things work, sometimes without recognising their own feelings or actions.

    Usually, children’s security depends on the attitude of the adults caring for them, not a piece of paper produced by a court. One has to ask,therefore, who is the legal status of adoption for? Why adoption? Why not permanence with trusted loyal, kinship/foster carers? Adoption does not seem to prevent break-down, so why? My take on this would be that LA’s are concerned that foster care is expensive so if kinship carers don’t meet acceptable standards it’s better to push for adoption. Possibly social workers are drawn to adoption believing that it is the ultimate way to secure a child’s placement.

    The idea that adoption can secure a child’s future and meet their cultural and identity needs is hopeful, but flawed. Today social media prevents children from being completely estranged from their birth family for very long. Even if children are prevented from accessing social media for a few years this is unlikely to endure and evidence is that children, as they get older, are curious about their birth families. Social Media has already been noted to be instrumental in disrupting many permanent placements, and is likely to continue to do so.

    There will be a very small number of children for whom adoption is the right choice of permanent care. These children are likely to be relinquished by their mothers with no apparent family (not necessarily family to care for them but living family per se) or there are no apparent living relatives. This is not the same as for a child who has a large extended family but no one able to take on the day to day care. Those children, if placed for adoption, find themselves in an invidious position years later, when many relatives surface but the child struggles to find a position within the family, which reformed without them. In this case should we not be considering permanent foster care, as the likelihood is that in years to come someone will want to accommodate the child, when they no longer have the dependency needs of an infant!

    The government needs to give more thought to how children can be cared for permanently within their family or in long-term foster care, so that they do not have to lose their rights to their birth family. Consider this (and I know it’s extreme but there are parallels) – what if one of their birth family members won big-time on the lottery? Would you feel that you had acted in that child’s best interests in depriving them of that inheritance? It doesn’t work the other way round – permanent carers who love the children they have raised can always choose to will their money!

    Final point – European countries do not forcibly take away parental rights on the scale that we do!