In the Children and Social Work Bill published last Friday, the government finally detailed its planned adoption reform. David Cameron, who described himself as “unashamedly pro adoption”, said the intention of this change is to ‘tip the balance’ in favour of permanency via adoption, yet questions have been raised whether the legislation itself actually does this. So what’s been said and how does it compare with the substance of the bill?
What the government said:
The government has talked about the adoption changes since November last year. At the time, David Cameron pledged to boost the number of adoptions and said the government was “actively considering changes to adoption law”.
In January, Nicky Morgan waded in, pledging that a change would be “fundamental”.
It’s worth noting that, even at this stage, commentators felt that the change would not be as big as the government was making out – with many seeing it as another reform to special guardianship.
In March, a policy paper on adoption was published, and detailed how the change would include placing prospective adopters within the categories of people a court and adoption agency must have regard for. It also said it would try and correct “a mistaken view that the legal test for adoption has changed and the bar that must be met for an adoption placement order to be made has risen” following Re B and Re B-S judgments.
The government had previously tried to soothe fears about the impact of these judgments, with the Adoption Leadership Board publishing a mythbuster guide in 2014 following a dramatic drop in the number of placement orders being made.
Finally, two weeks ago, David Cameron wrote in the Sunday Times that the government would “legislate to tip the balance in favour of permanent adoption where that is the right thing for the child – even when that means over-riding family ties”.
Then, after all those months of build-up, the bill was published.
What the government did:
The amendments to the law in the Children and Social Work Bill essentially change them in the same way special guardianship regulations were several months ago:
- Social workers will have to take into account the impact of harm previously suffered, or likely to suffer, for children involved in care proceedings as part of their permanency assessments and plans.
- The current and future needs of the child – and the way in which the long-term plan for the child meets their needs – will also have to be considered in assessing the best permanence plan for a child.
- The bill also gives prospective adopters whom the child is placed with will be given the same rights as birth parents in care proceedings.
The general reaction to this is similar to the reaction in January:- that it is welcome to put good practice in law, but it does very little to tip the balance in favour of adoption.
Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT and an adoption expert, said “there is nothing in this bill that promotes adoption over other placement types”, instead calling the changes “eminently sensible”.
Suesspiciousminds, a blogger on family law, said: “All of the things specified here are things that I think the Court’s DO consider, but it doesn’t hurt to have them set down clearly that they HAVE to be considered. It certainly isn’t something which shifts the legal test on adoption notably or is likely to ensure that the Prime Minister’s declared aim to double the number of children being adopted.”
Reaction to the piece appears to paint a clear picture of a government whose rhetoric lost touch with reality.
The reality is that, as Suesspiciousminds points out in his blog, that Re B (and therefore Re B-S) are derived from European Court of Human Rights case law, and that makes any meaningful change in adoption law in line with what the government wants impossible to achieve.