- Setting of timescales to reduce delays looking for a “perfect” match
- swifter use of the national Adoption Register
- greater placement of children with potential adopters in anticipation of the court’s decision (concurrency planning);
- quicker assessment process; two months in training and information gathering, plus four months of full assessment;
- a “fast-track” process for those who have adopted before or foster carers wanting to adopt a placed child
(Dept of Education 2011)
The current system is robust and, if we define success in terms of the stability and quality of the relationships formed between adoptive parent and child, very successful. (BAAF 2012) There is evidence that improvements can be made; e.g. achieving this stability for more children. However a number of the proposals, and the expressed rationale for these, is fundamentally flawed and as a consequence the reform is in danger of, almost literally, “throwing out the baby with the bath water”.
The number of Looked after children in England remains constantly high, 65,520 in 2010-11, a small increase 2% from the previous year (BAAF 2012b).
No one argues the need for appropriate care planning, including the identification of an appropriate, loving “forever” family. But the essential aspect of this is that it needs to be the right family, not necessarily the perfect family. Delays in the time taken to conduct assessments are being alluded to as resulting from unnecessary attention to detail. PM David Cameron, in November 2011, following a visit to a children’s centre, stated that too much time was spent asking prospective parents “pointless questions” and called for more “discretion” and “judgment”. However developing a relationship with prospective adopters, asking questions, and gaining understanding of strengths and awareness of vulnerabilities are the basis of informed judgements by social worker. The quality of the assessment is the foundation of a successful placement and of appropriate matching of child to family. Planning for permanence, whether though adoption, fostering or special guardianship must always start from the needs of a child and the prospective parents’ capacity to meet those needs. Parenting is never easy, even with your own child, starting with a “clean slate”. But parenting a child who is traumatised, struggles to form relationships, is delayed in emotional and psychological development and, often, their education, requires increased skills, time and resilience. This secure base (Schofield 2007) constitutes more than the size of the house, length of relationship and willingness of the adults to accommodate a child. It also encompasses trust, empathy, and awareness .Adoptive parents need to have knowledge and understanding of the impact of trauma, and, crucially, must be able to live with this in their lives. Developing this can take time, more than the allotted two months training.
The assessment process is not just a period in which the social worker learns about adopters, it is also an essential period of self reflection for the adopter. As someone who has undergone this process, albeit for fostering, I know only too well the importance of identifying and acknowledging personal values and belief systems before they are challenged not after the event. When we are emphasising the importance of this for social workers, who do not live with trauma, in the current social work education reforms, (CoSW2012) how can we be devaluing the time spent on this for those who can, and often do live it 24 hours a day?
Conducting a good and thorough assessment is time consuming. The period of home study and compiling the PAR (BAAF) can be reduced, but only by increasing staffing by qualified and experienced Social workers. Providing rigid timescales, driven by number not detail does not allow for exploration of complex personal situations that characterise peoples’ lives and experience. While there is some evidence of replication within the paperwork and the sharing and recording mechanism, this is part of the bureaucracy associated with child protection in general, as referred to extensively by the Munro Report and is not an isolated feature of adoption services. Imposing rigid timescales, against which performance of agencies is judged, is counter-productive and will only lead to resources being focused on numbers not detail. This performance target approach will not reduce but will exacerbate perceptions of the “tick-box mentality”, referred to by government. The focus of the reform is clearly demonstrated in the proposal “An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay”. The aim is to increase numbers and decrease time spent, the target demonstrably “throughput” (Wastell and White et al 2010) rather than needs of the child or quality of the work undertaken.
The rationale given for reducing delays is the importance of development in the very early years of life, the under 5’s. The importance of early life experience is not denied and there is significant evidence to support the negative impact of physical, emotional neglect and abuse.
However very few children coming into the care system fall in this age range. The average age at adoption in 2010 was 3 years 10 months, with only 24% of children in care being under the age of 5.(BAAF 2012b)
At the point that a substitute family is even potentially considered appropriate, considerable damage has often been done and adopters are needed who do not just parent but “therapeutically reparent”, a significant difference.
The proposals link delays placing with aims to march children and families by ethnicity. Ethnicity and culture are part of personal identity, understanding of which is very important. Current adoption legislation has not precluded cultural mix but has always asked that any substitute family can reflect the child’s background. This is not the same as matching like for like, this is impossible, as within every society each family has their own culture; but is important for all aspects of identity to be valued and not to be undermined.
Given the amount of emphasis and research around safeguarding and protecting children within their birth families, working to remove them if necessary, it is a constant source of consternation that the same emphasis is not placed on identifying and responding to identified need when matching children with substitute families, supported to respond to these needs. Safeguarding does not end when a child is removed from an unsafe home environment but continues ensuring that child can be supported to have internal and external personal resources that will enable them to be safe for the rest of their life. Good substitute parents are the starting point for this, not the end point.
This brings me to the most resounding flaw in the proposed adoption reforms, that of provision for adoption support. Despite the rhetoric there is little to evidence any commitment to providing ongoing adoption support, either through central funding or via local authorities. There is no denying support is expensive. On the most basic level being a parent costs money. During a period of austerity, a time when most parents need to work and/or provide day care it is a big ask to make of any family, placing great financial demands on any family. Add to that the increased likelihood that their new child will require support above and beyond that of their peers. An adopted child placed is more likely to need education support, counselling and possible medical support (Selwyn, Sturgess, et al 2006), which may not be available via the local authority, with the cost falling on adoptive parents. Without firm commitment for this in the long terms placing agencies will have no alternative but to recruit from those prospective adopters who have independent financial resources to ensure that individual agencies limited available resources remain available for other children.
Such a situation, placing children with only affluent families of independent means, smacks of social engineering. Any adoption reform must involve a significant and meaningful commitment to provide ongoing, not time limited, support.
On the other hand, it has to be asked, if this same level of support could be made available to birth families, how many of these children would have been enabled to remain within the birth family? And for those who this was not safe, greater availability of resources would reduce the time to identify and respond to a child’s needs prior to adoption, so reducing delay.
One proposal within the reforms is for National Gateway for Adoption to operate alongside current services. The aim of this, to ensure prospective adopters get consistent and high quality advice and information as they consider adoption is welcomed by BAAF (2012). However there is scope for much more than an information service that could address some of the current tensions and problems.
The current system sees many different services operating independently, local authorities, charities and the private sector. This creates a high level of competition in terms of substitute care providers, adopters and foster carers. Many local authorities currently require assessed adopters to remain “in county/agency” for a period to try and match in house, so recouping some of the cost of training and assessing. Tensions also exist between fostering and adoption. Approval of a foster family as adopters further depletes the number of foster families available when there is already a shortfall of xxxxx. Fostering teams are therefore resistant to supporting this and are to lose trained and experienced foster carers. Even within county there is competition for placements both between and within agencies, local authorities and Independent fostering agencies. Any considered and informed action to address this type of bureaucratic conflict is laudable.
The reforms call for greater use of contingency planning, children placed who may return to family or may require a permanent substitute home. Again key to success in this is matching. Motivation to care for a child, ability to bond with, emotionally hold, but also let go if appropriate, to promote and maintain contact with birth family, must all be explored to prevent the traumatic consequences for all of the wrong match. This is as true in fostering as adoption.
Quicker use of a national, independent, register of all available substitute families, outside local authorities to avoid conflict, would go someway to addressing this, but only if consideration is given to how we finance assessment and support of substitute families, whether foster carers or adopters. Emphasis on market, competition and value for money does not fit well when seeking to make the right match between parent and child.
Perhaps the greatest problem that exists with the adoption reforms is the lack of clarity as to what it is seeking to achieve. If it is supportive consistent care for children unable to live within the birth family it needs to consider all substitute family arrangements. While the proposed Adoption reforms reflect some of the sentiments contained in the recommendations made by the expert working party, (ref) the focus on timescales and numbers have reduced it to a case of “never mind the quality feel the width” and it has lost the true aim of providing a “system being responsive to the individual circumstances of the applicant rather than the applicant having to adapt to the requirements of the system”(CVAA 2012)
Without great care adoption reform could just become a way of taking children out of the “system”, reducing lists, but not doing anything to address the long term needs of the children concerned.
Join @SWSCmedia debate Today (12-June-2012) at 8:00 PM UK. / 3:00 PM (New York) & share your views.
Pauline Franklin (@paulinefranklin) is a Senior Lecturer and Programme Director MA Social Work, Canterbury Christ Church University.
BAAF (2012) BAAF statement re: Government’s Action Plan on Adoption available a http://www.baaf.org.uk/node/4066
BAAF (2012b) http://www.baaf.org.uk/res/statengland
CVAA (2012) Redesigning Adoption. Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies
CoSW (2012) College of Social Work. Social Work education reforms available at
Dept of Education (2011) An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay.
Selwyn, J.; Sturgess, W.; Quinton, D. and Baxter, C. (2006) Costs and outcomes of non-infant adoptions, British Association for Adoption and Fostering.
Schofield G and W,ard (2010) Understanding and Working with Parents of Children in Long term Foster Care London: Jessica Kingsley.
Wastell, D. White, S., Broadhurst, K., Hall, C., Peckover, S. & Pithouse, A. (2010) Children’s services in the iron cage of performance management: street level bureaucracy and the spectre of Švejkism, International Journal of Social Welfare 19: 310–320.
Join @SWSCmedia debate Today (12-June-2012) at 8:00 PM UK. / 3:00 PM (New York) & share your views.