"The adoption process needs some revision, but it is not a broken system"
Recently published adoption figures showed shockingly low levels of placement. Louise Hocking explains the real reasons why and says that although there are some welcome changes afoot, the long-term emotional and welfare needs of the child remain paramount
Louise HockingDirector of Child Placement British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF)
Many people ask why the adoption process is so slow and much has been written in the media recently to highlight how lengthy, complex and stressful it is. It has been portrayed as a broken system. From this, one might imagine a system where all children wait, the majority of prospective adopters are turned away and social workers are either deterring suitable prospective adopters or focusing on the minutia of irrelevant aspects of people's lives.
We need to consider whether this is a system that is failing overall, whether it is a system that is not fully understood or if improvements and adjustments are required in some of its component parts. However I would argue that it is not a system that is intrinsically flawed in its basic structure or methodology and the system works well for many children needing adoption and for many adopters.
How the adoption process works
The adoption process includes a complex system of connected professions. There are local variations in practice and preferences including consideration of other equally suitable options for looked after children such as Special Guardianship Orders or permanent fostering. These do not always feature in the public consciousness where the adoption figures are the ones predominantly highlighted. People often ask why it is so hard to adopt and that it should be obvious who has the potential to be a good parent through adoption. They question why people have to prove themselves so much to adopt, in a way that no one has to in order to have a birth child. The question we need to ask is what would be a suitable process for a stranger to care for a vulnerable child, legally and emotionally, for the rest of their shared lives?
A self declaration of decency and safety would not be contemplated in any other realm of life as adequate proof of suitability. We do not appoint ourselves to jobs or college courses. We do not appoint ourselves to care for children in any other setting such as a teacher, nursery worker, child minder, au pair or babysitter even though in all of these arrangements the child has the security of parental overview in addition to this role. Social workers have a responsibility to find and assess people for the task of adoption, a task that will legally supersede the responsibility of all others in that child's life, for the rest of their lives. An adoption service is fundamentally a service for children; one where the child is the primary "customer" and the adopter, while crucial, the secondary one. A child has a right to a family life, and while people have the right to be considered fairly, not everyone has the right to adopt.
Duty of care
The issues that reach the headlines are ones that focus on single issue lifestyle factors such as smoking and obesity or issues such as ethnicity and age and implies that social workers are keen to dissuade people from adoption. In fact over 95 per cent of applicants are approved once they reach the adoption panel stage. Social workers work daily with the harm and subsequent impact that looked after children have faced and are seeking the best family they can possibly find. They do this with the intention and aspiration of offering a child a lifelong adoptive family who can heal and care for the child forever, in the context of the full detail of the child's previous history that could include abuse and neglect. They understand that while the core of adoption is based on parenting skills, adoption requires many additional layers of understanding, strengths, qualities and skills in addition to those required to parent a birth child. The criticism aimed at social workers for aiming for "perfection" is aimed at a professional group aspiring to find the best resource to achieve the best outcome. Matching is complex and, if an adoptive placement ends through disruption, it is such a painful process. Social workers face the criticism for being at either end of an extreme scale. They are seen as a profession that either puts adopters off by stressing the negatives and does not celebrate adoption sufficiently or alternatively, are seen as naive, wholly unrealistic and working to a rule of optimism where older, damaged children are placed with adopters new to parenting and hope that it will last.
Family Justice Review
There are factors that need addressing in the adoption process. It should be a process that includes judicial promptness and continuity and one that appropriately reflects the gravity and significance of removing a child from their birth family for life. This is not a decision that should be taken lightly, but one that needs to be taken with the child's development and the impact of delay in mind. The Family Justice Review has just recommended that children's care proceedings should be concluded within six months and that must be right. Adoption agencies need to ensure that they are wholly welcoming and encouraging to all applicants who are interested in adoption. Many people perceive it as a process that aims to deter them, emphasise the negative or judge them. It should be a process that is inclusive, informative, transparent and welcoming and this is particularly important in the initial stages. This does need to be balanced with the enormity of the task and it does require considerable strength and resilience on the part of an adopter to undertake it. The outcome should be one of joy and celebration after a process properly managed, professionally assessed and analysed. It should result in an environment equipped with all the potential to make the adoption last, last well and to a quality of relationship and attachment that is meaningful to both parent and child, with an emotionally rewarding family experience for all concerned.
Why are they waiting...
The children who wait the longest are sibling groups, those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, children over the age of five and children who have a disability, significant developmental delay or medical issue. While encouraging prospective adopters to come forward to adopt, there is a significant disparity between the children waiting and the children that many adopters anticipate adopting. As an indicative example, currently there are more than 75 sibling groups of three or more waiting on the Adoption Register for England and Wales with less than five adopters approved to care for large sibling groups.
Case study - Louise's story
My name is Louise and I am 11, nearly 12 years old. I like playing with my dolls and my Littlest Pet Shop animals. I like dancing and reading. My favourite book is Lily Alone, by Jacqueline Wilson. When my mummy used to read me lots of bedtime stories, my favourites were Six Dinner Sid and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I am good at trampolining and swimming, and I have got my 800m badge. I've just moved up to secondary school and I was a bit nervous about it, but it's not as bad as I thought. I've made new friends and I can find my way around the school, which I was worried about. There is a lot of homework so that's quite annoying. Some of my new friends are really good fun and I like walking to school. I feel much better about being adopted now than I did because I've got a family. But it can be awkward sometimes at school when everybody else isn't adopted and you can feel left out. I am glad I was adopted with my brother as I don't want to be an only child at home. It's good that you have each other so if you don't feel settled they might feel the same and you can talk about it. When I met my mummy and daddy I was a bit shy, I can't remember many of my feelings from then. It feels a bit scary sometimes that I have only been here five years but I am nearly 12 years old. The best thing about my daddy is that he is funny and is into music. The best thing about being adopted is that you have a proper family to look after you. My mummy kept saying "no, we can't have a guinea pig" but now we have two of them! A longer version of this article, entitled "What's it like being adopted" was originally published in Be My Parent in November 2011 www.bemyparent.org.uk © BAAF. Reproduced with kind permission.
Last year 3,050 children were adopted. The point of measurement in this statistic is the granting of the actual adoption order. This is different to the number of children placed for adoption and many children will be placed and living in their adoptive home long before the adoption order is granted with the average time being 10 months from placement to adoption order. (Source Table E2 Government LAC Statistics 28th September 2011). Some 60 of these adoption orders were made regarding children under the age of one and given the timescale for care proceedings and adoption orders it would be highly unlikely to achieve an adoption order for a child under one unless it was with parental agreement from the outset. In addition to the 3,050 children adopted in 2010/11 1,740 were placed and given legal security by Special Guardianship Order. This is a total of 4,790 children given permanent legal security and is a 6.5 per cent increase in children being placed in permanent placements with 2009/10. Not all the children placed via Special Guardianship would have necessarily been adopted, but a considerable number would have been, given that when wider friends and family are considered as the placement option for a child, Special Guardianship is usually the legal order chosen over adoption.
The adoption process needs some revision, but is not a broken system. There are issues in workforce recruitment and training in the expertise of permanency planning in the social work profession. There are also inadequate resources, difficulties in compliance with timescales or inconsistency of application on behalf of the adoption agencies (voluntary adoption agencies and local authorities) that undertake this work. It must be a system that speeds up the aspects that could and should be progressed more swiftly. These would include the first response to all prospective adopters and the adherence to the assessment timescales as set out in current guidance, reducing the length of time in care proceedings for children and continued creative and wide ranging family finding techniques for all children requiring adoption with active and continued follow up on each and every potential match.
Looking to the future
There is a national shortage of adopters and more adopters are needed. However until all the prospective adopters are actively trained, prepared, equipped and encouraged to feel confident in their ability to meet the specific needs of the groups of children waiting the longest, more adopters alone will still leave a resource gap. What would help would be well thought through, expertly assessed and fully resourced post adoption support plans. This will inevitably mean more investment in adoption. Given adoption's track record as a successful intervention for children, BAAF would say that any such investment is money well spent.
Age of children adopted in England:
● The average age at adoption was 3 years 10 months
● 2% (60) of children adopted during the year ending 31st March 2011 were under 1 year old
● 71% (2,170) were aged between 1 and 4 years old
● 24% (730) were aged between 5 and 9 years old
● 3% (90) were aged between 10 and 15 years old
● x% (x) were aged 16 and over (figures not shown to protect confidentiality)
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