On 27 May 2015, the Queen’s Speech included the introduction of the Education and Adoption Bill. The actual speech outlined the part of the Bill that relates to failing and coasting schools, and did not mention the adoption aspect. However the Department of Education’s press release “New measures to end delay for children awaiting adoption” dated 23 May 2015, gives a description of what the Bill will introduce in relation to adoption. The gist of it is that the Department of Education will have the power to force local authorities (as adoption agencies) to combine forces and adoption services, if they do not do so within the next two years. The aim is for local authorities to have a bigger pool of adopters to match with children waiting for an adoptive family.
The idea of pooling prospective adopters between different local authorities is not new. Local authorities have had adoption consortia for many years. Some examples would be the South West Adoption Consortium, which brings together 15 local authorities and four voluntary adoption agencies and Adoption North London, which has members from six London boroughs. These consortia allow the member local authorities to search each other’s database of approved adopters to find suitable families for exploring and matching with a child. The consortia give people who may be interested in becoming adopters a central number to contact the local adoption team. Most local authorities belong to a consortium.
The Department of Education appears to have also ignored the fact that, at least in England, there is an Adoption Register, which has a database of children waiting to be adopted and a database of available approved adopters. The only difference is that the Adoption Register is used after a local authority has not been able to find a potential match locally in-house or through the consortium. It is for the harder to place children. A possible solution could be to expand the Adoption Register so that every child with a placement order and prospective approved adopter is automatically placed onto the database rather than wait for each local authority to decide when this happens.
Can you speed up matching?
There are various reported statistics at any given time. The Department of Education states in its press release that currently “more than 3,000 children remain waiting to be matched … with more than half having spent 18 months in care despite there being adopters readily available.” The statement is an oversimplification of the statistics. While 3,000 children is not a small number, there is no breakdown of the ages and particular needs of these children. Within this number, there will be children with disabilities, children with behavioural difficulties, and older children. There will be sibling groups within the number. It is still the case that most adopters will be looking for a baby or a child below three years old. Those children are more able to forget about their past experiences and hopefully adapt to their changed circumstances more easily. The press release is silent on how many approved adopters are those willing to take on the harder-to-place children.
The criticism against adoption teams is that they search locally before looking further afield, such as in a consortium or the national register. Although it is not a stated requirement, it is often the case in care proceedings that the court directs the local authority to file a family finding statement. This usually requires a member of the family finding team in the local authority adoption team to conduct a preliminary search of not only the internal database, but also of the consortium and the national register. The information goes towards helping the court to decide whether adoption is the correct and proportionate route for a child’s long-term care and welfare. It demonstrates that social workers are fully aware of the need to look at all possible avenues. This is especially true when the child will be harder to place.
While there are now legally fewer barriers to matching in terms of a child’s ethnicity and birth family cultural preferences, it is still important to find a match where the child will feel like he or she is part of the family. Matching should be made carefully and after proper exploration and interview. This is a life-long decision for a child.
The Education and Adoption Bill’s aim, to reduce delay for children, is admirable. Children should be given the chance to have a permanent family that will love and support them beyond their minority. The idea that local authorities are not already working jointly to gain more potential adopters for children and require legislation is strange given what is happening on the ground. The proposed legislation will have no real value or purpose.
If the criticism is that there is too much time spent looking in-house, then the more natural solution is to amend the Statutory Guidance on Adoption (Statutory Guidance), which was published in July 2013. The need to look more widely from day one can be written into the Statutory Guidance.