Children’s services leaders have criticised a government call for councils to prioritise adoption for children in care, saying it relegates other forms of permanence and ignores the impact of austerity.
In a letter to all directors of children’s services, Michelle Donelan said adoption would be “a priority for the new government and we also wish to see a renewed focus on adoption by local authorities”.
Though she said there were “a number of other options that can offer children permanence and stability including long-term foster care, kinship care and through special guardianship”, Donelan stressed that ministers were “determined to see adoption pursued whenever it is in a child’s best interests”.
The letter added that councils should review their processes and procedures to ensure compliance with legislation – and that social workers understand it and work within it – in order to prevent prospective adopters being turned away as ineligible. Donelan warned against rejecting candidates on the basis of income or marital status and said agencies “should not prioritise trying to find the ‘perfect’ ethnic match”.
Decline in adopton numbers
Referring to the decline in adoption numbers – and in the numbers of assessments recommending adoption – captured by Department for Education (DfE) statistics published before Christmas, Donelan said that “children’s needs should be at the forefront of decisions”.
In a statement accompanying Donelan’s letter, education secretary Gavin Williamson added that “adoption can transform the lives of children waiting in care for a permanent, loving home”.
“I applaud the hard work and commitment of social workers who dedicate themselves to giving children the kind of home environment that many of us take for granted and urge them not to shy away from putting children forward for adoption,” Williamson said.
Welcome from adoption charities
Senior figures from adoption charities welcomed the government’s announcement. “Many children are thriving in kinship care and other sorts of permanent arrangements,” said Sue Armstrong Brown, the chief executive of Adoption UK. “But this is welcome confirmation from the government that they place a high value on the love and stability adopters provide for some of the most complex and vulnerable children in society.”
But many others responded to Donelan’s letter with dismay. Kevin Williams, chief executive of the Fostering Network, said he was “perplexed by the Westminster government’s use of language and continued view of adoption as the gold standard of care”.
“We have been around this loop so many times before and are disappointed that we are having to do so again,” Williams said. “It is particularly disappointing that this letter should be sent out at this time when the government has committed to commissioning a review of the care system in England.”
This is a reference to the Conservative manifesto promise to “review the care system to make sure that all care placements and settings are providing children and young adults with the support they need”.
No mention of the review was made in Donelan’s letter and the government is yet to set out any concrete plans for the probe.
Williams warned that the letter appeared to pre-empt the findings of the review and indicate the government’s priorities before it had even started.
‘Most children do not need adopting’
“While adoption may be the best route to stability for a small number of children, the majority of children in care do not need adopting and all forms of permanence should be properly supported and considered for each child,” he added. “It is certainly not the case that children in care are ‘waiting for a permanent, loving home’.”
Writing on Twitter, Brigid Featherstone, professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield, said it was “out of line” of the government to promote adoption over other options in light of recent evidence – including a study she co-authored for the British Association of Social Workers. BASW’s adoption enquiry was commissioned in 2016 in the wake of the Cameron government’s years-long focus on increasing the number and speed of adoptions.
A joint statement issued via BASW by Featherstone and her co-author Anna Gupta, professor of social work at Royal Holloway University of London, expressed “concern” at the government’s moves to prioritise adoption.
“We heard [during the adoption inquiry] from those who had been adopted, adoptive parents, birth families, social workers, legal professionals and academics,” the statement said. “While there was a recognition that adoption is suitable for some children, it was considered that it was not suitable for many of those who come into the care system.
“It is too stark in its severance of the legal relationship between those adopted and their birth family and out of line with the emotional realities for most involved,” the statement added. “The identity needs of adopted people are very important and adoption, in its current form, does not recognize these.
Featherstone and Gupta’s research found that for decades, policymakers had promoted adoption, erroneously, as “risk free in a ‘happy ever after’ narrative”.
The study concluded that adoption needed to be considered in the context of cuts to welfare, legal aid and services that had increased hardship and reduced support to keep families together. It called for further debate around the model of adoption – including the merits of a more open approach – and its status in relation to other permanence options.
Alternatives, such as placements with kinship carers or long term foster carers, and legal remedies such as special guardianship orders, “can provide safety and stability for children, but do not require such a severe break with key relationships,” the academics’ statement said. “Currently, these do not receive the support and policy attention that is needed.”
‘Risk of over-simplification’
Rachel Dickinson, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said it was important not to “over-simplify what are complex and life changing decisions”.
“Adoption is just one means of securing permanence and stability for children in our care,” she said. “Foster care, residential care, kinship care or special guardianship arrangements will be the right option for different children and young people.
“Local authorities will continue to support adoption, where appropriate,” Dickinson added. “Ultimately, the courts will not approve an adoption unless this is the right decision for the child. ADCS would like to see a broadening of the debate about adoption to fully recognise the value of all forms of permanence and consider the care system as a whole.”
‘No one form of permanence superior’
A spokesperson for the Local Government Association (LGA) said that councils “shared the government’s ambition to make sure that children in care have stable, loving homes, including through adoption where appropriate” but did not believe that any one form of permanence is superior to others.
“What is most important is that children’s needs and their voices are at the centre of any decision made about their futures,” the spokesperson said. “Councils have long welcomed applications from people of all backgrounds who are interested in adoption, and will continue to support those who are able to provide a loving, stable home for a child in care.”
Both Dickinson and the LGA spokesperson said they welcomed additional funding announced just before Christmas, and referenced in Donelan’s letter, which will support regional adoption agencies to recruit adopters, especially those from black and minority ethnic communities that are under-represented. But they added that the scope of investment could be broadened.
“Given that most children in care live with foster carers, the recruitment and retention of high-quality foster carers who are able to meet the wide ranging needs of children in care is worthy of further focus, and crucially, investment from government too,” Dickinson said.