Action plan sets out radical overhaul of adoption system

14 Mar 2012 02:27 PM

The Government today published an Action Plan for Adoption to overhaul the system for prospective adopters and strengthen the performance regime for local authorities. 

The current system is too bureaucratic and takes too long for both potential adopters and children who need a stable, loving home. The numbers of children adopted from care has been decreasing in recent years. Just 3,050 children found new homes through adoption last year, the lowest since 2001.  A recent survey showed that one third of adopters were not satisfied with their experience of the adoption system.  Research has shown that with every year that a child waits their chances of being adopted decreased by 20 per cent.

The new action plan will include proposals for:

  • New adoption scorecards, to hold local authorities to account.  The first scorecards will be published in the coming weeks.
  • A revised approval process for new adopters, cutting it to six months.
  • A national gateway for adoption, providing a first point of contact for anyone interested in adoption.

Secretary of State Michael Gove said:

The case for urgent and radical reform of the adoption system is clear. Adoption gives vulnerable children the greatest possible stability and security, in a permanent loving family and it can bring great joy and reward to adoptive parents. 

For too long, children in care have been let down by local authorities and the family justice system.  I believe scorecards will shine a light on which authorities are doing well and which ones need to improve. Local authorities should be in no doubt that we expect to see improvements in the coming months.

Quality placements are of paramount importance but there is no excuse for delay.  We know that delay can be deeply damaging and every year a child waits there is less chance of being adopted. Some agencies and local authorities are already striking the right balance and this urgently needs to become the norm.

It is vital we tackle delay throughout the system. Our Action Plan sets out how we will speed up the process for the child, prospective adopters and make sure that local authorities find families faster.

The Action Plan contains the most urgent changes we need to improve the adoption system.  This is the first part of a radical wider programme of reform to improve the lives of all children who enter local authority care.

At present, very few local authorities meet the timescales that statutory guidance sets out for the different parts of the child’s journey.  The scorecards will highlight key indicators for how swiftly local authorities place children in need of adoption and how swiftly they and adoption agencies deal with prospective adopters. 

There are three key indicators:

  • The first key indicator will relate to the overall experience of a child who is adopted. It will measure the average time it takes for a child who goes on to be adopted from entering care to moving in with his or her adoptive family. 
  • The second key indicator will look at the same period, but identify the proportion of children who wait longer for adoption than they should.  It will help ensure the scorecard takes account of children still waiting, as well as those who have already been adopted – and allow us to act quickly if a large number of children seem to be stuck in the system in a particular local area.
  • The third key indicator will test the speed and effectiveness of family finding.  It will measure the average time it takes for a local authority to match a child to an adoptive family once the court has formally decided that adoption is the best option. 

On Friday, the Prime Minister outlined plans to speed up the process for children waiting for an adoptive placement.  The Action Plan also includes radical plans to reform the recruitment, training and assessment processes for prospective adopters.

The Government is clear that we need more adopters, especially those who are willing to adopt older children, sibling groups and children with disabilities. 

The Action Plan was informed by an Expert Working Group consisting of local authorities, voluntary adoption agencies and adoptive parents. They put forward plans to address the issues, and they are clear they want an assessment process which is timely and transparent, rigorous and not burdensome.  Their key proposals included:

  • A new six-month approval process.  This will consist of a two-month pre-qualification stage, followed by a four-month full assessment stage. There will be a fast-track process for people who have adopted before, or who are already approved foster-carers who wish to adopt a child in their care. The Government will consult on the necessary regulatory changes later this year.
  • A national Gateway for adoption, providing a first point of contact for anyone interested in adoption.  This would provide a central point of contact through a telephone helpline and website, it would provide independent advice and information about adoption and how to apply to become an adopter.  The Government supports this in principle and has asked the Expert Working Group to look in more detail at its scope and function and make recommendations for its implementation.

The Government asked BAAF to produce a draft new assessment form that it intends to pilot over the coming months. It will cut the assessment form to a short sharp analysis of the prospective adopters’ capacity to parent.

Martin Narey, the Government’s Ministerial Adviser on adoption, said:

The case for more and swifter adoptions, for less delay for vulnerable children, and for more considerate and faster processing of those who apply to adopt:  has been made for sometime. Today they become much closer to being a reality. This is an important plan which when implemented - and I expect that to be swift - will effect a radical reform of adoption in England.

I particularly welcome the approach to ethnicity and the long delays caused by current practice in seeking a perfect or partial ethnic match for an adopted child. The Government's unequivocal message today is not about how much delay is acceptable. It makes clear that no amount of delay is acceptable.

Matt Dunkley, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said:

Adoption, where it works well, provides one option for finding a stable and loving home for some of our most vulnerable children, alongside other forms of permanence. Making adoption work well everywhere should be a priority for anyone who has the interests of these children at heart. Local authorities are central to making adoption work better and all authorities should be drawing on the best practice available in our sector, whether this is in finding families faster, in completing professionally rigorous assessments or in making swift decision making a priority. 

But it is not local authorities alone who help or hinder speedy adoptions and this action plan draws on reforms to social work practice, the courts and the National Adoption Register to identify and remove systematic barriers to finding adoptive homes quickly for those who need them most. Any attempts to improve performance of individual local authorities must take the performance of the wider system into account – without that, there is a limit to what local authorities can achieve.

Notes to editors

1. The numbers of children adopted from care has been decreasing in recent years. Just 3,050 children found new homes through adoption last year, the lowest since 2001.  Many of the children who are adopted are forced to wait far too long: the average time between a child entering care and moving in with their adoptive family is one year and nine months. If a child enters care when they are already past their infancy, at the age of two and half, the data suggests they will be nearly five by the time they move in with their adoptive family.  Research into brain development has shown only too clearly the devastating effects of this delay on children.  This is compounded by evidence showing that the longer children in need of adoption have to wait, the less likely they are to be adopted.

2. The new six month approval process will consist of a two-month pre-qualification stage, followed by a four-month full assessment stage. The pre-qualification phase will involve initial training and preparation – clearly separated from the full assessment phase.  During this stage, prospective adopters will use initial training sessions and online training materials to develop their understanding of adoption and to reflect on what they have to offer before progressing with their application.  The full assessment stage will consist of more intensive preparation and training and a new more streamlined and analytical assessment process. The adoption agency will sign up to assessment agreements with prospective adopters setting out what will be involved and what the timetable will be, given their particular circumstances.

Implementing these changes fully will require changes to regulations, statutory guidance and the National Minimum Standards. The Government will consult on the necessary changes later this year, with a view to implementing them as early as possible next year.  In the meantime, the Government will work with the national and local agencies represented on the Working Group to prepare for successful implementation of the new approval process.   BAAF has produced a draft new assessment form and intends to pilot this over the coming months.  We agree in principle with the proposal that the government develop new online training materials, and will consider further how they can best be developed.

3. We will set performance thresholds from this year, but raise them incrementally over the next four years until they reflect the levels set out in statutory guidance.  For example, the threshold for the family finding indicator will be seven months initially, moving down to four months within four years.  We will keep these thresholds under review as we develop and implement the changes to the adoption system set out in this Action Plan and elsewhere. 

Where local authorities are below one or both of the thresholds, we will look at further information from the performance tables and from Ofsted reports to get a fuller sense of the results they achieve for the children in their care. This would include consideration of contextual data on children who are harder to place and on the local family justice system. Ultimately, we will consider where we may need to intervene in order to ensure that local authorities are providing an adequate service to children in need of adoption.

4. You can find out more information and personal stories about adoption and fostering:

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