kennedy Editor of our sister Jim Kennedy (17/5/2012) looks at the impact of the Children's and Families Bill on adoption:

We live, as they say, in interesting times. The Government's concerns about, and intentions for, children's services are rising in prominence, and moving into a much more directed phase with the confirmation of a Children and Families Bill in the next parliament, and with the publication of the first tranche of adoption scorecards.

Both of these major developments focus, in general, on long term care arrangements for children, and on the need for much greater speed in the care and adoption processes. Neither address directly, the other key question of how our systems for safeguarding and protecting children can be improved - that will depend on other processes. But we note, in passing that Michael Gove, prompted by the events unfolding in Rochdale, is said to have written to the Deputy Children's Commissioner, to ask her to make early recommendations, in relation to girls, from her wider review of safeguarding in residential care.

In broad terms, the Children and Families Bill is intended to reduce delays in the family justice and adoption systems, by speeding up care proceedings and ensuring that the adoption matching process is not delayed by bureaucratic processes or an inappropriate focus on issues of ethnicity. It is also intended to overhaul the special educational needs (SEN) system, including the introduction of a single, simpler assessment process, backed up by new Education, Health and Care Plans.

Specific proposals for the Bill highlighted by DFE, include:

 - Mechanisms to ensure that LA's cannot delay adoption matching decisions unnecessarily - with questions of ethnicity to be regarded as a secondary consideration
 - A 6 months' time limit for the completion of care cases
 - Reductions in the requirements on Family Courts to review interim care and supervision orders
 - The introduction of statutory protections, comparable to those currently associated with a statement of SEN, to people aged up to 25, in further education
 - Requirements on LAs to publish details of the support available to disabled children and young people and those with SEN, and their families
 - The right to a personal budget for their support for parents or young people with Education, Health and Care Plans
 - Mechanisms to ensure that both parents retain relationships with children when families break up
 - Strengthened powers for the Children's Commissioner, including incorporation of the role of Ofsted's Children's Rights Director.

As CareKnowledge readers will know, other aims previously identified by the Government for the adoption system include the creation of a national gateway providing a first point of contact for anyone interested in adoption, and an end to the requirement for adoption panels to confirm that adoption is in a child's best interests.

The first Adoption Scorecards are based on information gathered between 2009 and 2011. I've only had the briefest time to look at them but I have to say that, if part of their purpose is to offer easy access for the public, including adopters, to performance information on their local authorities (a basic requirement, I would have thought, for something called a scorecard), they've already failed for me, at least. I find the individual cards difficult to read - and difficult to know what they're telling me - without careful study - about the local authority concerned. (The cards currently available are for each local authority).

As far as I can see there is as yet no overview report or other detailed material that draws out any comparative lessons learned. (If CareKnowledge readers spot something we've missed, please let us know). DFE has, though, provided its own very short synopsis of what the cards show. They say that:

 - Children are waiting an average of 20 months from entering care to moving in with their adoptive parents - which they say is six months slower than the timetable set out in guidance
 - 80 authorities have met both interim thresholds (21 months from entering care to adoption; and the matching of children to families within seven months of a court order being made.

These are to be lowered to 14 months and four months respectively over the next 4 years)
 - But 72 have so far failed to meet one or another of the interim aims
 - There is wide variation across the country - and, in some cases, between neighbouring areas (This point is obviously intended  to scotch any argument that local circumstances dictate performance).

So, the scorecard system has started to roll, and, in one field, at least, we have accelerated away from ideas of a hands-off government letting localities get on with their jobs, free of central government shackles - and into a more familiar micro-managed approach to care services. It will be interesting to see how the practice world responds to these renewed demands for consistency and the achievement of set time targets - and, whether government uses the opportunity of the Bill to tighten things even further…

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