Expert's Corner: Interview with Andrew Christie

Clare Jerrom speaks exclusively to the new chair of the government's Adoption Leadership Board about delivering the government's adoption reforms.

The pendulum has swung too far in favour of placing vulnerable children in care with extended family as opposed to considering adoption, the new chair of the Adoption Leadership Board has warned.

As he takes to the helm of chairing the Board, Andrew Christie is clear that in some cases, children have been placed with an extended family member under Special Guardianship Orders when the long-term implications for the success of that placement have not been adequately considered.

“It is a very complex picture but I do have some concerns that the pendulum has swung too far towards looking for an alternative placement in the child’s extended family,” said Christie. “I think for some children, a permanent placement with extended family is the right thing to do. Grandparents can and do want to care for grandchildren.”

“But in some case the connected person identified as a long-term parent is not that connected and does not have the parenting capacity to meet the child’s needs as they grow up,” he warned. “That is one of the reasons it is a priority issue for the Leadership Board. Local authorities are concerned about it, as are social work practitioners.”

Some cases have not been adequately thought through

There were more than 5,300 children adopted in 2015, however, the number of decisions for adoption has almost halved in the last two years. Meanwhile, there has been a surge in the number of Special Guardianship Orders issued from 2,975 children in 2011 to more than 5,000 in 2015.

“A very skilled judgement needs to be made around how the child’s needs will be met in the short and long term,” said Christie. “For some, this will be SGOs and placements with extended family members where there is an existing connection and where they are committed to the child and looking forward they are likely to be able to provide the right standard of care. But that needs to be tested.”

“I think that’s the challenge. Sometimes an order is made and the long-term viability has not been adequately tested,” he said, adding that where there is any doubt over the long-term suitability of the placement, adoption should be considered.

“First and foremost we should consider what can give the child the best life-chances in the long-term and my suggestion is that there have been cases where that has not adequately been thought through,” said Christie, who until recently has been the Director of Children’s Services for the London Triborough area (Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea) since 2011.

Prior to leading children services for the three boroughs, which also share a range of other services, Christie was director of children's services for Hammersmith and Fulham, a role he held since 2006. He has more than 40 years’ of front line social work experience. In December, Christie was appointed as the new Children’s Social Care Commissioner for Birmingham, replacing the previous commissioner, Lord Warner, who stood down from the role earlier in 2015. Christie is also chair of the Lambeth Safeguarding Children’s Board although he insists he will be able to carry out the three part time roles contemporarily.

Christie applied for the position of Chair of the Adoption Leadership Board and went through a selection process. His role there will be to bring together sector representatives from local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies, adoption support, academics and government officials to provide leadership to the sector to improve life chances for children who could benefit from adoption and the support for adoptive parents.

Unashamedly pro-adoption

The Board - which “works with central government, but is not an agent of central government” and is supported by the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies and the Department for Education - was established under Martin Narey’s reign and is made up of around 15 members.

“The priority for the Board at the moment is to firstly address the decline in the number of children in care being adopted, secondly ensure adopters and their families get the best possible support and thirdly ensure Regional Adoption Agencies are in place and operating,” said Christie.

Narey, he explains, had expressed the view that there were too many small adoption agencies operating like “a cottage industry,” lacking resilience and struggling under the financial pressures local authorities face. The idea is to help local authorities come together in arrangements whereby there are shared adoption processes with voluntary adoption agencies and by 2020, Christie hopes that the 150 individual local authority adoption agency will be replaced by around 25 regional adoption agencies. Christie has experience of the concept as under the Triborough arrangement, they created one adoption service across three councils which resulted in efficiencies and better outcomes for vulnerable children, he explained.

While adoption has been a priority over a number of recent years, there has certainly been a step-change in the last six months. In January, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan announced the government’s intention to change the law on adoption to ensure children had the best start in life. In March, a four-year adoption strategy was unveiled along with Christie’s appointment and the recent Queen’s Speech cemented the government’s proposals to legislate by introducing the Children and Social Work Bill to “ensure that children can be adopted by new families without delay and improve the standard of social work and opportunities for young people in care in England”. In a telling interview with the Sunday Times prior to the Queen’s Speech, prime minister David Cameron admitted he was “unashamedly pro-adoption” and said that while foster parents do an amazing job for many, “I believe all children need a loving, permanent and stable home.”

Echoing Christie’s sentiments, Cameron told the Sunday Times: “Recently the courts and social workers have begun to favour less stable placements with distant relatives, such as great-aunts and uncles, rather than adoption by new families that would produce more permanent solutions and better outcomes.

“Adoption numbers have now almost halved in the past two years. I am not neutral about this; for me, a child’s happiness and future life chances will always come above everything else,” the prime minister added.

No child protection system is perfect

Christie explained: “Adoption has been a high priority for this and previous governments. The public focus has stepped up and the interest has been raised because of the prime minister’s interest in the children’s social care system and children in care. He has made it clear he wants to improve the life chances of children in care.”

“He does, (and I agree with him) want to see adoption as a vital and central part of care arrangements for vulnerable children who need protecting. For a number of children, adoption provides the best life opportunities”.

“The significant thing to think about is that decisions have relevance for the child’s whole journey throughout childhood and into adulthood,” he added.

Christie said there are cases where it is “crystal clear” that both parents are not able to care properly for their child and even If they were supported, they would not be able to change for the better in a timescale sufficiently fast so far as the child is concerned. Those cases may be when a child has been severely neglected or abused, where parents have mental health problems or drug and alcohol problems.  He explained that “no child protection system is perfect” and previously some children haven’t been identified as quickly and early enough for them to be the subject of care proceedings and removed from families. Those children, who are not identified early enough and have not had the opportunity for adoption, are the ones he is most worried about.

Education secretary Nicky Morgan has referred to “children spending months in care waiting for their new family, when loving parents are available,” and Christie explains that the new Children and Social Work Bill will aim to address this but also social workers and courts have already been working hard to address delays and progress has been made. While more progress could be made in this area, Christie is quick to remind us that this is a “momentous decision” when a child is removed from his or her parents and placed with adoptive parents and this needs a “right and proper process which pays due regard to that decision”.

“I believe you can have good quality decision-making in a timely manner and we need to improve and perfect that further,” he added.

Morgan also pledged to “make sure social workers have the skills to make the right decisions for adoptive families by clearly setting out how social workers must prioritise adoption where it is in the best interest of the child” as she unveiled the adoption strategy. Christie said this would be achieved through professional training and development, guidance, supervision and insisted the government was placing a high priority on “improving the quality of professional training that social workers receive prior to entering the workplace”.

Christie’s appointment as chair is for two years but he insists his role is ‘Chair of the Adoption Leadership Board’ and not an ‘adoption tsar’. He is very clear that the Board has collective responsibility and priorities and it is “not a solo venture”.

“Achievement will be measured on successfully reversing the decline in children being identified and placed for adoption, improving the quality of support to adopters, having Regional Adoption Agencies operating and supporting adopters and the continuation of a flourishing voluntary adoption agency sector,” he concluded.

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