The government must set up a task force to tackle longstanding racial disparities in the adoption system, including by making the workforce more diverse.
That was one of the conclusions of a House of Lords committee examining 2014 children’s social care law reforms that, among other things, sought to make it easier for black and ethnic minority children to be adopted.
The Children and Families Act 2014 removed the requirement for adoption agencies to give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background when making decisions about them.
This was not designed to prevent agencies from taking race into account – as they and the courts have remained under an obligation to make the child’s welfare paramount, which includes taking into account their background.
Rather, the Department for Education (DfE) wanted to ensure black and ethnic minority children were “not left waiting in care longer than necessary because local authorities [were] seeking a perfect or partial ethnic match”.
Reform ‘has had limited impact’
However, in a report last week, the committee found the change had had limited impact, quoting figures from the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board showing children from black and ethnic minority groups waited three months longer than white peers to be adopted.
Though some of its witnesses criticised the 2014 reform for underappreciating the importance of racial matching in meeting a child’s ethnic and cultural needs, others said social workers continued to prioritise ethnic matching. This was because of an increasing focus on the role of race in identity formation and the challenges of transracial adoptions.
However, the committee found there were significant barriers to black and ethnic minority prospective adopters coming forward, including because of poverty and the perception that families needed a spare bedroom in order to adopt a child.
Adopters also told the committee that some social workers needed more training in cultural competence to work with prospective adopters from an ethnic minority, while witnesses also raised concerns about the lack of diversity of the workforce and, in particular, of adoption panels.
Lack of diversity in adoption workforce and panels
Sarah Johal, the DfE-appointed national adoption strategic lead, told the committee that, “generally, the panel is all-white and mainly female, which is reflected in the adoption workforce … It is an ongoing issue”.
Though 23% of local authority children’s social workers are black or from an ethnic minority, compared with 18% of the English and Welsh population, this is not broken down by team or service area.
Others said the lack of diversity of panels – whose role is to recommend whether a child should be placed with particular prospective adopters – was due to inadequate pay and the fact they were chosen from adoption leaders’ existing networks.
The committee said: “Ethnic minority children still wait too long to be adopted; a disparity which is unacceptable. There remains a shortage of prospective adopters who are prepared to adopt children from minority ethnic groups and those who do are insufficiently supported. The adoption workforce, and adoption panels, are insufficiently diverse.”
Need for task force to tackle racial disparities
To “drive whole system change at all level”, it urged the government to set up a task force to tackle racial disparities in adoption, accountable to the education secretary and with “specific, targeted and measurable outputs”.
It should focus on “increasing diversity in the workforce and on adoption panels, support for transracial adopters, training for those working with minority ethnicity adopters and adoptees and recruiting and supporting minority ethnicity adopters”.
In response, the professional body for children’s guardians, Nagalro, urged the government to implement the committee’s recommendations.
“For too long, Black children have been over-represented in children in care and wait longer for an adoptive placement,” said chair Yvonne Wilson. “We need to deal with why we have so many Black children coming into care and why we do not have enough Black people coming forward to adopt.”
The committee was set up to examine the impact of the Children and Families Act 2014’s reforms in areas including adoption and family justice.
Its overall verdict was that they were a “missed opportunity” to improve the lives of children and young people because of their inadequate implementation and a lack of data against which to judge success.
Lack of data on impact of fostering to adopt
For example, the committee found there was no data on which to measure the impact of measures in the act to promote so-called fostering to adopt placements. These require a local authority to consider placing a child, for whom they are considering adoption, with foster carers who are also approved prospective adopters, once they have considered a placement with a connected foster carer.
Peers said that, while the government collected information on so-called early permanence placements, these were not disaggregated between fostering to adopt placements and concurrent planning. Under the latter, a child is placed in foster care with prospective adopters, while the council also considered if they may be reunified with their family.
This meant it was not possible to track trends in fostering to adopt placements, though the committee concluded that the impact of the act had been minimal. This was because the number of early permanence placements as a whole had grown from just 250 (0.4% of looked-after children) in 2015 to 470 (0.6%) in 2021.
While witnesses were “unanimous” about the benefits of fostering to adopt placements, particularly in reducing the number of moves children experience before finding a permanent home, the committee said they posed “unique challenges”.
Not only did prospective adopters need to reckon with the uncertainty that the adoption would take place, but the placements also often involved greater contact with birth families while placement orders were being sought, necessitating more support from social workers.
In its adoption strategy last year, the DfE announced £500,000 for regional adoption agencies to promote early permanence placements, and the committee called on it to publish an impact assessment of the funding, alongside a longer-term strategy to promote early permanence.
Call to reinstate national adoption register
The committee also called on the DfE to reinstate the national adoption register, which adoption agencies were previously required to refer unmatched children within 90 days of their adoption plan being approved. The 2014 act allowed for the making of regulations, in 2017, to enable prospective adopters to search the register, but the DfE then suspended the register in 2019.
All adoption agencies use the Link Maker service, with which they they can voluntarily share the profiles of unmatched children and allow prospective adopters to see them. However, while witnesses said they valued Link Maker, the committee said there was no requirement for agencies to refer children or social work support for matching, as was the case with the national register.
Peers said this “undermined the ability of children to be seen by all those who may be able to provide them a permanent home”.
Their report added: “This is an unnecessary barrier to finding loving, secure homes for children, and one the government failed to account for.”
Elsewhere, in its report, the committee called on the government to set a target for reducing the length of care proceedings which, as of earlier this year, were running at almost double the 26-week legal limit.
Act has had ‘transformative impact’
In its response to the report, a DfE spokesperson said: “The Children and Families Act has had a transformative impact on the lives of children in or leaving care. Under this government, more than half of children’s social care services in England are rated good or outstanding, up from 30% five years ago. We have invested in creating stable homes for children in care, reducing delays in the adoption process, and we have introduced provision that allows children leaving care to keep their support networks as they become adults.”
This is a reference to Staying Put and Staying Close, which allow care leavers to stay with their former foster carers or stay connected to and supported by former children’s home staff, respectively.
The spokesperson also pointed to the DfE’s response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, due early in 2023.
“We will publish our bold reform plans for children’s social care early in the new year,” they added. “This will be informed by our close working with the sector to make sure future services are built on the strong data base that we have developed over the past 10 years.”
Dr Carol Homden, chief executive of children’s charity and adoption agency Coram, said: “This timely report from the Lords committee lays a gauntlet to us all by underlining that good intentions when it comes to policy making are not enough. At Coram, we are clear that a rigorous focus on implementation is essential to realise results for children.”