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Mark Willis: Why the government’s latest adoption changes could be bad news for families

Managing director of WillisPalmer Mark Willis on the government’s recent announcement on adoption

Last week the government announced it was planning to change the law to ‘speed up’ the adoption of children in care and make it ‘easier’ for foster carers to adopt those who are living with them.

These changes, announced by the education secretary Nicky Morgan, means that family members looking to provide long-term kinship care for children they are related to, will need to prove they can offer ‘restorative care’ to children who have suffered abuse.

These proposals are the government’s latest attempt to prioritise the adoption of children in care and for the first time local authority foster carers will be on the same footing as family members who may have known the child for many years.

The government’s strategy also includes plans for infants under the age of two to be placed with foster carers who may want to adopt them permanently. Local authorities will be incentivised to prioritise adoption by a new policy of publicly shaming those councils who fail to act quickly to find adoptive parents for children in care.

So where does this leave extended family members who hitherto have been able to put themselves forward to care for a relative in situations when the birth parents are unable to? The suggestion that they would be required to ‘prove’ they can care long-term for a child needs some unpacking.

Currently relative carers are assessed usually either as special guardians or as connected persons whereby they go through a stringent process which looks at their history, parenting capacity and social supports. In situations where they may not have been closely involved with the child they will be provided with contact and observations are undertaken in order to assess their ability to relate to the child. If they are approved as kinship carers this will often mean the child can maintain some form of contact with birth parents which in certain circumstances have long-term psychological benefits for them.

‘Proving’ their capability as carers

As part of a comprehensive social work assessment an analysis is made of the kinship carer’s potential to provide long-term care, taking into account the child’s experience of abuse and trauma. However, it is often the case that relatives will need ongoing support such as therapy for the child, help with parental contact and sometimes practical assistance in order to ensure positive long-term outcomes for the child in their care. Such support is often lacking and all too often carers are left unsupported and alone.

The government’s latest plan to speed up the adoption process will put kinship carers at a disadvantage. ‘Proving’ their capability to provide long-term restorative care will not be easy, especially in a climate of cuts to services and the likelihood of little support being provided by the local authority. Foster carers on the other hand will be backed up by various support services, will have had previous training in areas such as attachment and will have a social worker allocated to support them.

The result of all of this will mean fewer children may have the opportunity of being placed with family members. The latest set of announcements by the government suggest political motives are taking priority over the needs and rights of children. As John Hemming MP, chairman of the Justice for Families campaign group said, the changes would create a “one-way conveyer belt” towards adoption rather than a “complex series of judgments” that could include placing children with family members.

Whilst it is right to say that adoption provides a wonderful opportunity for many children who have been abused or neglected it is not the only way. So-called restorative care can and is provided by family members throughout the UK in both formal and informal settings with great outcomes for children. The government should be cautious of over-prioritising adoption at the expense of all other forms of long-term care or it runs the risk of being accused of social engineering.




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