Story updated 8 March 2022
The decline in the number of adoptions since 2015 is continuing while children are waiting longer on average to be placed despite an expanding pool of approved adopters, official figures show.
The data was published this week as the Department for Education announced £144m in renewed funding for the adoption support fund (ASF) plus £19.5m for regional adoption agencies, from 2022-25, sparking renewed calls for investment in the rest of the care system.
In 2020-21, the number of children adopted from care fell to their lowest level in 21 years, to 2,870, continuing a year-on-year decline from a peak of 5,360 in 2014-15, showed DfE data released in November.
Ongoing adoption decline
The latest figures, from the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board (the ASGLB), showed this decline has continued through the first half of 2021-22, with falling numbers of children at every stage of the adoption process. They showed that, in the second quarter of 2021-22 (July to September), there were:
- 720 agency decision maker decisions to place a child for adoption, down 20% on the first quarter of 2021-22 and 20% on the second quarter of 2020-21.
- 600 placement orders granted, a fall of 19% on the first quarter of 2021-22 and 26% on the second quarter of 2020-21.
- 710 children matched with an adoptive family, a 12% drop from quarter one and a 9% decline on the second quarter of 2020-21.
- 750 adoption orders granted, down 13% on quarter one of 2021-22 and 3% on quarter two of 2020-21.
Meanwhile, the average length of time children with a placement order (PO) had spent waiting to be placed rose to 667 days, a number which has gradually increased since April to June 2019, when it was 556.
Though the number of children with a PO waiting to be matched declined to 1,870, its lowest point since at least January-March 2019, the ASGLB said this was due to a decrease in orders granted in 2020-21 rather than more children achieving permanence.
And though the key government target of the number of children with a PO waiting longer than 18 months to be placed fell to its lowest in over two years (970), this group made up 52% of all of those waiting, the joint highest proportion since April to June 2019.
However, more positively, the number of children with harder-to-place characteristics – those aged five or over, disabled children, those from an ethnic minority and sibling groups – increased in the first half of 2021-22, compared with 2020-21.
As adoptions, overall, continued to decline, the number of approved adoptive families waiting to be matched has gradually increased since 2019, to a high of 2,370 September 2021, 23% higher than a year before.
This figure was hailed by the government as demonstrating the impact of the national adoption strategy – which sought to improve adopter recruitment as part of measures to reduce waits for children with a placement order.
However, it is a snapshot taken just two months after the strategy’s publication, while the number of prospective adopters registered during July-September 2021 (860) was the lowest for any quarter since at least January-March 2019.
The ongoing decline in adoptions sparked concerns from adoption leaders.
Dr John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF, said the figures showed a “disparity between those that have been approved as adopters and the children who need to be placed with those adopters”.
“It is a troubling picture,” he said. “Those children are typically some of the most vulnerable children with the worst starts in life.”
Regarding the 667 days between children entering the care system and being adopted, he said: “Two years of waiting when those children have already experienced a bad start in life is really troubling.”
Andrew Webb, chair of the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies (CVAA), welcomed the new funding but added: “Despite studies consistently showing that adoption gives children the best life chances of all forms of care, fewer children are being offered this opportunity for a positive future,” he said.
“We are really worried about what is happening to the children who would have previously been adopted – is a life in care really in their best interests? More attention urgently needs to be given to care planning to ensure children can access the families for life which [voluntary adoption agencies] provide.”
Adoption support funding boost
The funding for the ASF – equivalent to £48m a year, for local authorities and regional adoption agencies (RAAs) – represents an increase on the £46m in 2021-22. The ASF funds therapeutic and other types of support for children in adoptive, or prospective adoptive, families, and those previously in care who are under a special guardianship order, aged up to 21, or 25, if they had an education, health and care plan.
A DfE-commissioned evaluation, released this week, based on a follow-up survey of families who started receiving ASF support from 2018-20, showed most parents or carers found the services helpful and there were positive effects on the wellbeing of school-aged children receiving support.
Adoption UK said the new funding represented “nothing short of a lifeline to families bringing up some of the most vulnerable children in England”.
Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, added: “Adopters tell us that ongoing support is vital and we have long called for the adoption support fund to be extended, so we are pleased that adoptive families and adoption agencies now have certainty over this funding for several years,” she said.
The funding for RAAs is designed to support improved recruitment of adopters from diverse communities – a key objective of the adoption strategy – and “national matching” between parents and children. The strategy aims to tackle barriers to matching, including by exploring the value of a national matching service.
Calls for focus on rest of care system
The focus of the funding package on adoption sparked calls for more funding for the rest of the care system.
Though the number of children leaving care on SGOs has outstripped those adopted since 2018-19 – a trend continuing into 2021-22, according to the ASGLB figures – they have historically made up a small minority of those accessing ASF support, with the majority going to adoptive families.
Dr Lucy Peake, chief executive at charity Kinship, said the extension of the ASF was welcome, but added that “we desperately need the government to shift the focus towards supporting kinship carers”.
Peake called on the government to rename the adoption support fund and extend its scope to all kinship families, alongside a funded strategy “so kinship carers get the financial, practical and emotional support they need and deserve”.
For the LGA, Bramble added: “We would now ask government to extend this investment to aid the recruitment and retention of foster carers and the children’s homes workforce, alongside additional support for kinship care, to make sure that every child can live in the home that’s right for them.”
Adoption ‘taking up disproportionate amount of time’
Andy Elvin, chief executive of fostering charity TACT, said: “The number of adoptions is inexorably declining despite the DfE funding various initiatives and adoption is still taking up a disproportionate amount of the time government allot to focusing on the care system.
“Children in foster, adoptive, kinship or residential homes and children who return to their parents from care all need the same support, the same focus and the same access to services.”
Elvin reiterated his call last year for a national care service – independent of local authorities – “that equally prioritises the welfare and outcomes for all children in families that have been created by the state and does this in the best interests of the child over the lifetime of the child”.