Moves by councils to set adoption targets risk damaging the perception families have of care decisions, experts have warned.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Transparency Project to UK local authorities found 12 councils in England confirmed, sent or published documents showing that they use numerical targets for adoption.
Some local authorities provided an actual number of children in care they aimed to have had adopted each year. Others provided percentage figures.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said the issues were “nuanced and complex” and insisted adoption decisions were only made where they were in the best interests of a child.
The Transparency Project, which aims to bring clarity to family law, made the FOI request in response to what it labelled “persistent but un-evidenced criticism” that targets were driving the “removal of ‘adoptable children, particularly babies”.
Lucy Reed, a family lawyer who chairs the Transparency Project, said she had anticipated that councils would lay these anxieties “to rest” but the responses ended up suggesting “the picture is more complicated”.
“Whilst we have found no evidence that individual social workers are performance managed by reference to targets, and some councils specifically denied this, it is clear that some councils operate their own internal targets for broader management and performance purposes,” said Reed.
“Campaigners have highlighted the risk that targets of this sort could potentially have an indirect effect on decisions about whether or not an individual child should be placed for adoption, but our study did not produce evidence that helps to answer this question.”
Targets to encourage faster placement of children for whom adoption has been identified as the right outcome were “unobjectionable”, Reed added.
“But targets to increase the absolute number or proportion of looked after children who are approved for adoption are in tension with the very clear law in this area that ensures that each child and family is treated as unique.”
Nagalro, a professional association for social workers and professionals in court proceedings, called the findings “a scandal waiting to happen” and “will damage the credibility of those who are genuinely trying to protect children” on twitter.
A detailed post on the Transparency Project site sets out the responses from councils.
Merton council told the charity: “Whilst we have a local target for adoption figures these are not broken down into individual targets for managers or social workers.”
Charlotte Ramsden, chair of the ADCS health, care and additional needs policy committee said: “Local authorities were challenged to increase the effectiveness of their adoption processes several years ago including increasing the number of adoptions as children were perceived to be waiting too long for adoptive parents or ending up missing the opportunity for adoption due to lengthy care proceedings.
“Some are likely to have set targets to increase adoptions if they have been challenged for the low number of adoption outcomes achieved. Irrespective of any targets in place the welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration during care proceedings and where adoption is not in the best interest of the child it will not be pursued.
“The ultimate safeguard is the court which will not agree to the removal of a child into care unless this can be evidenced to be right for the child and will not agree to adoption as a plan unless that is also believed to be right for the child.”
The charity also found Nottingham council had set itself “an ambitious target of ensuring that 55 children exit care with an adoption order by 31st March 2014” in documents it submitted to the Department for Education.
Cambridgeshire said it did not have targets other than national adoption scorecard data, however, it also sent the charity an earlier document which said: “If we continue to excel the target of 40 placements additional staff will be required.”
Seventeen councils had responded or published documents to say they had not used numerical targets. The Transparency Project expressed concern that “a lack of clarity and transparency about these issues are likely to be as important as the reality”.
Adoption targets did exist between 2000 and 2008, before the then Labour government scrapped them. The Transparency Project findings are thought to be the first time councils have disclosed the use of numerical targets since.
Lucy Reed explains a bit more about the findings.
Is there evidence, that you may have seen in your work, of a preference for adoption that could be derived from local authority targets or the government’s focus on it?
“Whilst we have acknowledged the possibility that the targets we’ve found are influencing practice in the ways campaigners have suggested, our study does not provide evidence that it is in fact doing so.
“Despite our questions and concerns our study should not be taken as suggesting that the “adoption as baby snatching” narrative is made out, and we found no evidence of cash payments to individual workers in return for adoption as suggested recently on French media.”
“There is an on-going public debate about what form of permanence is “better” for children – adoption or special guardianship, and over the last few years we’ve seen quite a lot of adoption “lobbying”. We’ve noticed a tendency in pro-adoption rhetoric to fail to clearly distinguish between a desire for faster adoption and a drive for more adoption. We found a similar lack of clarity in the replies we received and in the descriptions of the targets local authorities are using and their rationale : Those councils who did refer to targets in replies or documents like dashboards and charts expressed them in terms of absolute numbers. Further, in their replies most councils did not specify how they had set that target or how they went about meeting it. There were some notable exceptions such as Haringey who told us they set their target by looking at the cohort of children with a plan for adoption and those with placement orders, or Brighton who seemed to say it was numbers and performance driven. Where a council using targets did tell us something about how that target was calculated (such as Haringey) we have always documented that in our study report.”
How much would you say the government focus on adoption may have prompted local authorities to use numerical targets?
“It seems reasonable to assume that the Government focus on numbers to be adopted by way of the National Performance Management Framework (by comparison to say the Welsh Performance Management Framework) is likely to have played a part, though this is difficult to quantify.”
The blog post mentioned Ofsted’s role in inspecting adoption services. What do you think the inspector’s approach should be to inspections in the wake of these findings?
“This study stopped short of examining how Ofsted inspects on this statistic, if at all. Some replies indicated that this was a question worth asking but no more. We have not yet asked the question and may not have the resources to do so. Beyond that, this is not within the Transparency Project’s remit, but we would welcome work that made these issues more transparent, and that was able to clarify what is the real focus and actual impact OF targets on practice and decision making.”
The final decision still comes down to the judge and – even if there’s a scenario where numerical targets have made social workers make decisions to meet them and pursue adoption where it maybe isn’t right – would numerical targets actually increase adoptions with the judge’s oversight? Is this more of a trust and perception issue when families are questioning why the local authority is pursuing its preferred plan?
“We don’t know if or how targets are influencing practice at this stage of the system, or the extent of any such influence on numbers. However our study does not allow us to say that they aren’t having an influence, at least indirectly. This certainly leaves a significant trust and perception issue which may well affect some parents’ behaviour, in particular their response to intervention, and their ability to engage with and ask for help from social workers – and potentially the outcome of individual cases.
“Councils control the flow of cases to a judge. Judges control the flow of children that go on to adoption. It is possible that targets to improve the rate of successfully placing children for adoption are influencing decisions about which children should be put forward for adoption – if that were the case it might affect the overall numbers put forward or the characteristics of those children (for example children perceived as easy to adopt might be preferred to those perceived as trickier to place or at high risk of breakdown), but each child put forward would still be subject to approval by the court and sufficient evidence would be needed to justify the plan of adoption.”