The government has urged local authorities to prioritise adoption for vulnerable children in care although some areas of the sector have slammed the move.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has called on councils not to shy away from putting children forward for adoption, and has asked them to review their practices following a drop in the number of assessments recommending adoption as the best option for a vulnerable child.
Children and Families Minister Michelle Donelan has written to every Director of Children’s Services in the country stating that the government has backed councils to prioritise adoption, and provided guidance challenging the myths that exist around who can or cannot adopt a child.
Children and Families Minister Michelle Donelan said: "Since becoming Minister, I have been struck by the incredible work that social care professionals do to protect and support children in care – but too many children are still waiting for a home to give them the stability they desperately need and together we must do more.
"There are a number of misconceptions about who can and cannot adopt that I worry are putting off potential adoptive parents. Neither age, ethnicity nor sexual orientation should be a barrier to adopting; what matters is the love and protection a parent can provide. That is why I have written to councils asking them to make sure they are following the law correctly so that no-one is wrongly excluded," she added.
The government has also made clear its commitment to adoption with a multi-million pound investment in an additional year of the Adoption Support Fund. Alongside this increased funding, more than £1 million will also be provided for Regional Adoption Agencies, working with voluntary organisations around the country, to run recruitment campaigns in 2020 aimed at finding adoptive families for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children.
Andrew Christie, Chair of the Adoption and Special Guardianship Leadership Board, said the development of Regional Adoption Agencies "offers a new opportunity to transform adoption services, drawing on the best of both the statutory and voluntary sectors".
A Local Government Association spokesperson said the additional funding for Regional Adoption Agencies to recruit prospective adopters is "good news, as is the extension of the Adoption Support Fund which has helped so many families".
President of the ADCS Rachel Dickinson also welcomed the additional funding for Regional Adoption Agencies and the extension of the Adoption Support Fund, to enable local authorities to recruit more adopters and provide support for adopted children, children living with special guardians and their families.
Sue Armstrong-Brown, Chief Executive of Adoption UK, backed the announcement saying: "Adoption is a critical route out of care for children who can’t return to their birth families and I welcome the government’s renewed commitment to ensuring the adoption sector is fit for purpose. This means investing to value adopters and the love and stability they provide for the most complex and vulnerable children in society. Adoption changes lives and adoptive families deserve lifelong support. Adoption UK stands ready to work with RAAs and the government to help ensure that adoptive families thrive."
However, the Local Government Association spokesperson said that while councils share the government’s ambition to make sure that children in care have stable, loving homes, including through adoption where appropriate, the Association "does not believe that any one form of permanence is superior to others".
"What is most important is that children’s needs and their voices are at the centre of any decision made about their futures," the Association said.
“Whichever option is best for a child, it is vital that all parts of the system are working well together, from councils and adoption agencies to the family courts, and we are keen to work with the government to make sure this operates as well as it should," the spokesperson added.
The Association added that councils have long welcomed applications from people of all backgrounds who are interested in adoption, and will continue to support those who are able to provide a loving, stable home for a child in care.
"We urge the government to also consider investing in the recruitment and support of foster carers to make sure that we have the most suitable placements available for all children," the spokesperson concluded.
Rachel Dickinson, president of the Association of Directors of children's Services reiterated the LGA's view, saying that "adoption is just one means of securing permanence and stability for children in our care".
"Foster care, residential care, kinship care or special guardianship arrangements will be the right option for different children and young people. We must not over-simplify what are complex and life changing decisions, what is important is that the needs and best interests of each individual child remains at the forefront of decision making at all time," added Ms Dickinson.
She said that local authorities will continue to support adoption, where appropriate, but warned that the courts will not approve an adoption unless this is the right decision for the child.
ADCS is urging a broadening of the debate about adoption to fully recognise the value of all forms of permanence and consider the care system as a whole.
"Given that most children in care live with foster carers the recruitment and retention of high quality foster carers who are able to meet the wide ranging needs of children in care is worthy of further focus, and crucially, investment from government too," Ms Dickinson concluded.
Gold standard of care
Indeed, the chief executive of The Fostering Network stated that it is certainly not the case that children in care are "waiting for a permanent, loving home" and said that description is offensive to the 55,000 foster families across the UK. It is also stigmatising of the tens of thousands of children and young people living with those families, not to mention children living with their wider family, he added.
Kevin Williams said: "We continue to be perplexed by the Westminster government's use of language and continued view of adoption as the gold standard of care.
"We have been around this loop so many times before and are disappointed that we are having to do so again. It is particularly disappointing that this letter should be sent out at this time when the government has committed to commissioning a review of the care system in England. The letter appears to pre-empt the findings of the review and indicate the government's priorities before the review has even started.
"For the majority of children in care, foster care remains an excellent option to provide them with a sense of belonging and to maintain the important relationships they have with their birth family. While adoption may be the best route to stability for a small number of children, the majority of children in care do not need adopting and all forms of permanence should be properly supported and considered for each child.
"Children’s Minister, Michelle Donelan, states that 'children’s needs should be at the forefront of decisions' yet if that were to be truly the case there would be no pre-ordained hierarchy of care, with the decision as to the best way to provide long-term stability for each child being made on a case by case basis rather than being dictated by government policy.
"We would urge the government to ensure that children’s needs really are at the centre of decision making about their care, and to refrain from making further statements that appear to prioritise one form of permanence over others," the government concluded.
The government's announcement also flies in the face of Martin Narey's review of residential care published in 2016 which was commissioned by the government and which concluded that it was a "misunderstood and grossly under appreciated part of children’s social care".
The review found that children’s homes are seen by many social work professionals, including many senior managers, as places of last resort: perhaps somewhere to park children temporarily, until a crisis has passed. However, there were a small number of senior managers, including Directors of Children’s Services and Local Authority Chief Executives, who had worked, however briefly, in residential care, and who recognised its potential.
"But for a greater number of managers, homes are seen as an anachronism, and relatively little investment has gone into developing best practice within them. And there has been a signal failure to obtain reasonable value for money when using them.
While the "dramatic shift" in recent decades towards the much greater use of fostering and the marked reduction in the use of children’s homes is broadly to be welcomed, the review said, the shift sometimes encourages a view that we can do more by further and substantially reducing our use of children’s homes.
"I found little - beyond a certain optimism - to justify that view. I think there may be scope for moving some children, who have previously not succeeded in fostering, from residential care and into a different sort of foster care. But there is a very real and unmet demand for the greater use of children’s homes as part of an initial assessment for older children when first coming into care, and for those on the edge of care," Martin Narey added.
While improvements can be made within the residential sector, Narey's review highlighted that three quarters of homes are good or better and some are "genuinely outstanding".
"So I see very little scope for reducing our reliance on children’s homes and I am quite clear that to do so would not be in the interests of children," the review concluded.
Backing them 100%
However, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "Adoption can transform the lives of children waiting in care for a permanent, loving home. I applaud the hard work and commitment of the social workers who dedicate themselves to giving children the kind of home environment that many of us take for granted and urge them not to shy away from putting children forward for adoption.
"As long as adoptive parents can offer love, care and the stable home every child in care deserves, I want them to be considered. This government will continue building on the increased support we are giving new adoptive families by making it clear to every council that if they think it is in the best interest of the child, I will back them 100 per cent in recommending adoption," he concluded.