by Andy Bilson
Sixteen years ago government announced its intention to increase adoption and introduce special guardianship (guardianship) to reduce the numbers in care. More recently government has again called for the number of adoptions to be doubled.
The aim of this policy is to reduce the number of children looked after, especially those who spend long periods in care, and instead to find permanent homes through one of these two means. By 2016 the rate of adoptions had more than doubled since the late 1990s and when guardianship is added four times as many children left care to these permanent placements (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Annual number of children ceasing to be looked after because they were adopted or discharged to special guardianship
Between 2001 and 2016 over 80,000 children left the care system to permanent placements, 58,890 to adoption and 21,870 to guardianship, though many guardians were family members. Over the same period the number of children in care has increased by 20% and is higher than for 30 years.
Increasing numbers of children separated from parents
These trends mean that there are clearly more children separated from their parents than before the policy, but it is hard to work out just how many. Government provides statistics on how many children were looked after on the 31st March each year, we don’t have the same statistics for children who were living with adoptive parents or guardians.
The graph below shows, for the first time, estimates of the number of children who left care for adoption or guardianship who were still aged under 18 on 31st March. This however includes some children no longer with adoptive parents or guardians because their placement broke down.
Figure 2 shows that the number of those who had been adopted or on guardianship rose from 29,000 children on 31st March 2001 to 73,000 in 2016 and, even if the annual rate of adoptions and guardianships stay at the 2016 level rather than doubling as the government would like, numbers will increase to over 110,000 in the next 10 years.
Figure 2: Estimated number aged 0-17at 31st March 2000-2016 who have been adopted or placed in guardianship and projection if 2016 rate of adoption and guardianship is maintained
Differences in practice
This picture of increasing adoption and increasing numbers of children in care is not uniform across the country. The annual rate of children leaving care to be adopted varies across local authorities from 30% to under 3%. If adoption is an alternative to placement in care we might expect authorities with the highest rates to reduce numbers in care as more children are taken permanently out of the system through adoption.
However, the opposite is true.
In the third of local authorities with the highest adoption rates over the last five years there was an increase of 10.0% in children in care whilst in the third with the lowest rate the number of children in care fell by 3.2% (see table 1).
A study of guardianship also found that higher users of adoption were also higher users of guardianship. So there is a gradient with higher users of adoption more likely to increase the numbers in care but an initial look at the levels of deprivation in these authorities shows no simple relationship there to explain these differences.
Table 1: Adoption and changes in the number of children in care 2012 to 2016 (excluding unaccompanied Asylum Seeking children)
|Rank of local authoritiesa by rate of children leaving care to be adopted||Rate of children leaving care who were adopted 2011-12 to 2015-16||Number Adopted from care 2011-12 to 2015-16||Number looked afterb on 31/03/11||Change in number looked afterb by 31/03/16||Change in children in care|
|a Excludes 3 small local authorities where less than 15 children left careb Excludes unaccompanied asylum seeking childrenc Two groups contain 50 local authorities and the middle 49|
Time for a change of direction?
We all want children to have a loving family whether with their parents, extended family, adoption, guardianship or foster care. How we achieve this is framed by policy and research in which a dominant theme is to focus blame on individuals – whether that be parents or social workers – and to understate the impact of growing inequality and poverty, and the reduction in services.
My previous research shows how existing children’s services are increasingly investigative and, as can now be seen, they are increasingly separating children from their parents. We need to look at those authorities where adoption is low and care is falling to see if there is good practice from which we can learn, though my concern is that they will simply be classified as underperforming and pressured to change.
It is time for a change of direction. I believe a key element is the co-production of services working alongside people in excluded and impoverished communities. This approach needs to start with children’s, parents’ and community participation in the definition of the problems they face which can then feed into the development of the services they need.