Jim  CareKnowledge editor Jim Kennedy believes the Care Bill published as part of the Queen's Speech contains some particularly important messages about concepts of permanence and the government’s on-going programme of reform of the adoption system:

‘Making Not Breaking’ was published by a group of leading children’s charities. The material presented is based on what is described a wide-ranging Care Inquiry into children’s services in England. The Inquiry was conducted through:

  • A review of research evidence
  • Three Inquiry sessions attended by 200 people with broad interests in children and the care system, which looked at the changing trends in state intervention and the care population; the views and experiences of children and young people, families and carers; and priorities for change
  • Consultation with children and young people, organised by The Who Cares? Trust
  • A parliamentary briefing in the House of Commons
  • Social media activity

The overall thrust of the Inquiry’s findings is that there is a need for an urgent overhaul of the child care and family support system, with a renewed approach based on identified care needs, rather than one based on preconceptions about legal status.

Wide range of changes and pressures
The Inquiry report recognises a wide range of changes and pressures that are affecting the system, including the upsurge in the numbers of children entering the care system – just as public finances are put under new strain, and cuts are being introduced; and increases in poverty, unemployment and the benefit system.

However, in some ways, the Inquiry’s most pressing conclusions are directed at the government’s current single-point improvement focus on adoption; and on the underlying assumption that this route to permanence and stability is the only – or the best – one available for all children.

The Inquiry calls for improvement activity that addresses the whole care experience and which recognises that adoption, and separation from birth families, are only parts of a through-care system that has many other responsibilities to children and their families.

In particular, the Inquiry calls for much greater investment in supporting birth families, where appropriate; and in identifying and maintaining a range of alternative permanence and stability solutions, alongside adoption. In doing so, it argues that adoption is far from the only option, that it is not best for all children, and that, whatever happens, it will only ever provide permanence for relatively small numbers of children in the care system.

Seeing children's care as a journey
The Inquiry focuses instead on the need to see children’s care as a journey, in which what the report describes as ‘the golden thread’ is the maintenance of core relationships – with families, and then with carers – which the current system is seen to too often disrupt, rather than nurture.

More generally, the report points to:

  • the key importance of children and family involvement in decision-making and planning, particularly to ensure effective work around necessary transitions
  • the need for strengthened skills and more effective workforce development
  • the wide variations found, in approaches to children’s services, across the country
  • the need for flexibility in responses that take account of families’ changing needs
  • the importance of recognising that children have different needs and that a one-size-fits all approach to permanence is therefore untenable
  • the need for a common definition of ‘permanence’ with ‘permanence’ meaning ‘security, stability, love and a strong sense of identity and belonging’, and which is not necessarily connected to legal status
  • the importance of building the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into policy and practice, particularly as it relates to promoting the upbringing of children in their birth families
  • the need to have proper resources and activity focused on family re-unification work
  • and for more attention to be given to the options presented by kinship care and long-term fostering

I also think it’s worth pointing you in the direction of the Inquiry’s review of research evidence on understanding permanence, which is available through the main document link. It is the source on which much of the Inquiry’s thinking is based – and, I think provides a valuable reminder of much that is known about research in this field.

A manifesto for more effective children's care
Taken as a whole, then, the Inquiry can be seen as something of a manifesto for more effective children’s care services. I certainly think the ambition to review the whole system and seek improvement across the piece is an entirely welcome one and one which might have sensibly preceded the government’s leap into ‘fixing’ the adoption system.

Whether or not you agree with all of the report’s conclusions and recommendations – and whether or not you think it has succeeded in capturing enough of a whole systems’ review, it makes, at the very least, a contribution to what ought to be a major debate about the approach to children’s services in England.

Otherwise, the absence of whole system thinking, particularly since the demise of Every Child Matters, leaves a big gap in the arrangements to shape and support effective care. And I think there are real dangers that focussing on issues in a piecemeal fashion, as with adoption, will lead to major problems going forward.