The leadership, commissioning and delivery of adoption services would be increasingly carried out at a national level, under government plans set out this week.
In its latest adoption strategy, the Department for Education announced a national lead for the 31 regional adoption agencies (RAAs) and plans to develop a national adoption framework, with England-wide standards.
It also pledged to explore the value of a national matching service, the commissioning of certain adoption support services at an England-wide level and a repeat of the national adopter recruitment campaign carried out last year.
In a foreword to the strategy, education secretary Gavin Williamson and children’s minister Vicky Ford said one of its key aims was to tackle a ‘postcode lottery’ in adoption outcomes.
‘Adoption should not be lottery’
“The new national adoption framework will mean services delivered to the same high quality across the country,” they said. “It means that best practice becomes the norm and offers a culture of continuous improvement which breaks down barriers. Adoption should not be a lottery for children or adopters because of where you live.”
The RAA Leaders’ Group, which brings together the heads of the regional agencies, will drive the increased national co-ordination of services. As part of the strategy, the DfE has appointed Sarah Johal, head of RAA One Adoption West Yorkshire, as the group’s strategic lead, backed by £500,000 in government funding for her role and a support team.
The strategy said her role would be to support the group to drive up performance, promote shared accountability for services across the country and identify and fill gaps in evidence, using this to develop the national framework.
It added: “Over time we will support the RAA strategic leader and the Leaders’ Group to work increasingly closer together to deliver services at a national level.”
This would potentially include a national recruitment campaign, building on one carried out last year, a national matching service, to speed up the sharing of adopters across regions, and the national commissioning of some adoption support services.
The strategy comes six years after the government declared the then system of adoption services as “highly fragmented”, with 180 agencies recruiting and matching adopters for just 5,000 children, leading to inefficiency, high costs and delays for children.
As a result, it said all local authorities should combine their recruitment, matching and support services into RAAs, each of which would have a larger pool of adopters to draw upon, enabling children to be placed more quickly.
The strategy published this week said that 145 of the 151 English local authorities were now part of one of the 31 RAAs, with the rest working to join one.
It cited a government-commissioned evaluation of RAAs, published last year, which found that the time taken from a placement order to a child’s placement with an adoptive family was 14 days lower in the first 10 RAAs to go live than those that had not yet gone live (180, compared with 194). The difference was greater for children deemed harder to place (202, compared with 237 days).
However, it said some RAAs were “better at recruiting a wider range of adopters or matching children than others”. Latest figures from the government’s adoption scorecard show that, in 2020, the average waiting time post-placement order was 185 days, but this ranged from 106 to 270 days between RAAs.
Long waits for children
Overall, half of all those waiting – just over 1,000 children – had been waiting for over 18 months – with sibling groups, children over five, those from ethnic minorities and disabled children disproportionately affected.
The strategy attributed this to four causes: insufficient numbers of adopters being recruited, those that were recruited being reluctant to adopt children waiting the longest, overly long matching processes and “challenging and intrusive” approval processes.
The strategy said some prospective adopters felt “disliked, misunderstood, and judged by the assessing social worker”, a particular issue for poorer families.
In their foreword, Williamson and Ford said: “The adoption system should not expect adoptive families to be middle class, have a certain income, own their own home or have a spare room. These are all irrelevant to the ability of adoptive parents to provide a safe, loving family for a child who
Concerns over prioritising ethnicity
The strategy also reiterated the government’s longstanding concerns about social workers prioritising ethnicity in matching. It said that, while this was important in helping children retain knowledge of their background, agencies “must not delay placing a child with the prospective adopter simply because they do not share the child’s ethnic or cultural background”.
The strategy pledged £1m to help RAA leaders improve recruitment and approval processes, to increase the numbers coming forward to adopt from diverse backgrounds, and improve family finding for those waiting the longest.
On matching, it called for much more information sharing between RAAs, and processes to enable them to share adopters. It said the current system of services charging each other interagency fees for using adopters they had recruited and trained slowed down the process, though, on the other hand, it provided financial stability for voluntary adoption agencies.
It added: “We will work with sector leaders to consider over time the value of introducing a new national matching service to speed up the sharing of adopters across regions, including exploring alternatives to fees changing hands.”
Changing Ofsted’s role
With Ofsted still regulating adoption agencies on a local authority basis and not having the power to scrutinise RAAs, the strategy suggested moving towards this.
The strategy said: “This means that it is difficult to understand fully the impact of RAAs. We will explore with Ofsted the opportunities to improve the current inspection and regulation arrangements so that there is the right level of scrutiny and reassurance across all key elements of adoption practice, and
more accurately reflect the way that services are now delivered.”
The DfE also said that it would invest £46m in the adoption support fund in 2021-22, a slight rise on the £45m allocated last year. As well as exploring whether national or pan-regional commissioning of adoption support would improve value for money, the DfE said it would work with RAAs to reduce delays in initial assessments for families accessing support.
Alongside the measures on adoption, the DfE also announced £1m in funding to support local kinship carer support groups.
‘Huge ask for regional adoption agencies’
Dr John Simmonds, director of policy at adoption and fostering membership body, said: “Delivering the national adoption strategy is a huge ask for regional adoption agencies. The sector continues to face a big challenge in recruiting both minority ethnic adopters and adopters for children with disabilities and for siblings, despite big efforts over recent years. We must explore the reasons for this in dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, including prospective adopters, and together take action so all children get the family they need.”
In response to the strategy, Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) president Charlotte Ramsden said: “We welcome the investment in recruiting new adopters, but we must focus on recruiting the right adopters who can meet the needs of the children who wait the longest to be matched with their family.
“The continuation of the adoption support fund and a commitment to explore national commissioning for high cost, low incidence services, such as intensive therapies, to support children to overcome earlier traumas, is helpful too, however we urgently need a long-term commitment to meeting the mental health and wellbeing needs of all vulnerable children.”
‘Leap of faith’
Adoption UK, which supports adoptive families, said there was “much to commend” in the strategy, particularly on adoption support and on listening to the voices of adoptive families.
However, chief executive Sue Armstrong-Brown said: “Much of the success of the strategy relies on the ability of the Regional Adoption Agencies to make big shifts in mindset and practice.
“Without the backing of new legislation, this is a leap of faith. RAAs will need support, challenge and scrutiny over the coming years in order to deliver the kind of change that will give every adopted child the best chance of a bright future.”