by Andy Leary-May
As an adoptive parent I have always felt that local authorities should look as widely as necessary for a match that sufficiently meets the needs of a child. The more complex those needs are, the fewer families there will be who are both willing and able to meet them. And the fewer families there are, the further you are likely to have to go.
Children with a plan for adoption have greater choice than ever, following a successful recruitment drive for new adopters and a dramatic drop in placement orders. Local authorities are sharing their increased supply of prospective families and this, along with adopters from independent agencies, has created an effective, national pool.
My organisation, Link Maker, helps make this national resource accessible for children. We are involved in the development of new Regional Adoption Agencies in England, which on the face of things would seem to reduce unhelpful fragmentation. However, without a greater focus on the national design, the right families for children with the most complex needs may become less readily available.
Analysis conducted by Link Maker highlights a potential and unintended consequence of the regionalisation program. We took 19 groups of authorities that are coming together as regional services and that together had matched 505 children though Link Maker in the past 18 months. These children include a high proportion of those considered ‘harder to place’. 62% of the children were in sibling groups, and 30% were at least 5 years old.
Significantly, 86% of the children were placed with a family from what will, in future, be a different Regional Adoption Agency. The children’s social workers had chosen a match beyond the boundaries of the new agencies – because they felt it was the right family for the child. Unless we are careful, a combination of factors will mean that these needs-led matches are missed in the future, or take longer.
We know that larger agencies tend to be worse at matching beyond their borders. A study commissioned by the Department for Education in 2010 showed how some local authorities wait too long before looking widely for a match, and this was cited as one of the drivers behind regionalisation.
What the study also found, which was not referenced, is the fact that the larger the authority, the greater the sense of self-sufficiency, and the greater reluctance to look more widely for a match for those children who wait longer.
As well as causing delay, this results in poorer matches. The study highlighted that “there were significantly more poor in-house matches (33%) compared to inter-agency ones (18%). In addition, significantly more poor quality matches were arranged by county authorities, suggesting that their greater use of in-house placements may sometimes have involved compromising on fully meeting children’s needs.”
While the new, larger agencies have been tasked with making sure that matching within them is free from past barriers (such as the interagency fee and practice variation), the children the regionalisation program seeks to help are already being matched at greater distances. Any bias towards matching within regional agencies, when coupled with a greater sense of self-sufficiency, could mean the children most in need losing out.
Regional Adoption Agencies present an opportunity to move to a system in which there is a genuinely national pool of adopters, with no organisational or financial barriers to placements outside one’s own agency. A child does not care which organisation ‘provides’ their new family – they care what the family is like, how well they might ‘fit’, and how the family can help them.
This is no less true for all other looked-after children, for whom adoption is not available. There is a growing consensus that as it stands, the care system is not providing these children with the breadth of choice they deserve.
A recent paper from CoramBAAF calling for improved funding to allow child-centred planning stated that “it would be helpful for a change in law to require local authorities to [seek the most suitable placement first time, focusing on meeting the child’s needs], meaning that an ‘in-house first’ approach was replaced with an approach that considered all placement options and selected the one that most fully met the needs of the child or young person.”
The same argument was made last year by the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, which was granted a judicial review in the case of three local authorities that employ an ‘in house first’ policy (this is, in fact, standard practice). NAFP’s position was criticised by some as promoting the interests of its members, but the argument is bigger and more child-centred than this.
If a local authority only looks to its in-house placements (or indeed to those from providers with whom it has a business agreement), it will be unaware of another placement that may better meet the specific needs of a child, wherever that placement might come from. With very few exceptions local authorities do not work together to share their resource of foster carers and children’s homes.
Doing this could lead to better needs-led matching, as well as reducing the number of under-utilised carers and empty beds.
All looked-after children deserve to find stable relationships with those who can best meet their individual needs, to help them recover from past trauma and flourish. The care system should aspire to nothing less, and with some serious joined-up thinking we could get a lot closer.
Andy Leary-May is chief executive of Link Maker