David Cameron recently said on adoption: “It is a tragedy that there are still too many children waiting to be placed with a loving family – we have made real progress but it remains a problem.”This comment is inaccurate and insulting. Children in excellent foster homes are not waiting to be placed with a loving family – they are with a loving family who are meeting their needs, caring for them, helping them recover from trauma and offering stability and continuity. The same is true for children placed with relatives.
The narrative of ‘adoption is great and other options are lesser’ is unhelpful and inaccurate. Many children who come into public care go on to achieve amazing outcomes whether adopted, fostered, placed with relatives or in residential care.
Adoption legislation untouched
The latest Department for Education (DfE) statistics show that 75% of children in care are in foster placements and only 5% are in adoptive placements.
Each case before the family courts is complex, unique and comes with its own set of options for the child. The capacity for change of the birth parents, the strength or weakness of the extended family, the age of the child, ethnicity, whether it is a sibling group or only child and additional needs all play a part in circumscribing the permanence options available. It is the family courts’ role to pick carefully through these complex situations and find a solution that is in the best interests of the child over their lifetime.
The truth is that the rise in special guardianship orders (SGOs) is not a problem, nor is the fall in placement orders for adoption. There is no call to do anything about adoption legislation. The DfE should instead be concentrating on supporting all forms of permanence to make sure they last positively throughout childhood and on into adult life.
Measuring local authorities’ success in terms of adoption numbers is ludicrous. They need to be measured in terms of outcomes for all children and young people entering care, and how they are doing in achieving permanence in all of its forms. Adoption is just one great option. An SGO with committed grandparents or uncles and aunts is another, as is an SGO with foster carers and stable long-term foster care, especially if the DfE engages intelligently in sorting out the implementation problems with Staying Put.
The family courts would be greatly assisted if they knew that whichever permanency option is right for each child could be chosen safe in the knowledge that timely, expert and assured post-order support would be available for each family, no matter the legal order.
Critical of foster and kinship care
The current focus on adoption ignores the 95% of children who come into the care system for whom adoption is either not appropriate or available.
This weighted promotion of one form of permanence is not doing adoption any favours, as the Prime Minister’s rhetoric is implicitly critical of foster care and kinship care in its efforts to promote adoption.
I fear the tone of the present debate is counterproductive, especially in the reaction it provokes in local authorities and the wider care sector. I also suspect that the proposed new regional adoption teams which will separate them from teams dealing with SGOs and foster care will not help in this. Pre- and post-permanence work needs to be joined up to ensure excellent outcomes for all vulnerable children.
What is needed is a national post-permanency support fund available to all supporting a permanent placement. Local authorities should be required to set up permanency teams that cover foster care, adoption and SGO placements. These teams will assess potential foster carers, adopters and extended family members to care for vulnerable children. These teams will also offer high quality post-placement support which will be available as a right. Adopters, foster carers and relatives are looking after the same cohort of children, so they should all be equally supported.
The government should bring into England and Wales the permanency order available in Scotland that legally recognises that long-term foster care is an excellent permanency option for many children in care, and one that should be valued, protected and supported. The extension of Staying Put to all children in care is also a must – and it will be a scandal if Martin Narey’s review into residential care does not recommend this.
The DfE must also focus on children subject to multiple placement moves, and bring in a requirement that any case of a child who has more than three placements must be notified to Ofsted. A formal case review could then be held to ensure that the right placement is identified and resourced. Some placement moves are in the best interests of children but too often they are a consequence of not identifying a permanent placement soon enough. Multiple placements are toxic to children and lead to poor outcomes.
Achieving great outcomes for vulnerable children is not a competition between adopters, foster carers, extended family members and residential care – it is an endeavour in which each of these plays its part.
Andy Elvin is the chief executive of TACT Fostering & Adoption.