Mark Lancaster is the Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes North, and a member of the Territorial Army.
Adopting a child twenty years ago was a very different experience. Relinquishments were much more common, and a plan for adoption was drawn up in a measured fashion. Placed within a matter of weeks, the baby could form attachments to their adoptive parents very quickly and with little disruption. Today, relinquishments are rare, and children who have commonly experienced neglect or abuse languish in care for years. In January, care referrals reached a record high, surpassing an astonishing 900 children. It is figures like this which have spurred this Government into action.
The Government is making all the right noises. Just this week, Michael Gove has encouraged local authorities to work more collaboratively with voluntary adoption agencies, a divide which has long needed to be closed, and an announcement I was delighted to hear. I, like many others, believe that the best possible situation for a child is to remain within their birth family unit. When parents require help to provide care for their child, we should continue to do all we can to provide that. But in a system which is purportedly child-led, it currently fails to work in their best interests.
Having spoken with adoption experts within my own constituency, it is clear that an open discussion must be had about why adopting a child can take so excruciatingly long, and what can be done to improve this. Tim Loughton and adoption advisor Martin Narey have been tasked with overturning a system which currently houses 65,000 children in its care. Even more astonishing is that just 6% of those children are waiting to be adopted. The government have blamed a "Spanish Inquisition"-style process to becoming approved as an adopter, where it is not uncommon to face months of preparation groups.
Whilst this may be true in part, we should also be addressing the power that birth families have to interrupt court proceedings, which is where the disruption truly lies. To understand where changes could take place it is necessary to give a brief overview of a child’s journey through the care system. When a child is removed from their birth home, there are two reviews of the birth parent/s which take place within four months. At the second review, adoption may be addressed as an option.
In the most common scenarios, where a birth parent wishes to retain custody, care proceedings will be carried out and they will go through a range of assessments and training. This alone can take six months. Even if they fail the 12 week assessment of their parenting skills, their solicitor can demand a re-assessment. This leniency stretches even further. When an adopter places their application to adopt, the birth parents often see this as a last chance to fight. The subsequent hearings and assessments can add an astonishing 24 months to the adoption proceedings. This duration can inflict irreversible disruption to the child, who may have been in placement for months.
I recently met with a constituent of mine who has had the unique opportunity to experience the process from both sides, as an adopter and family court magistrate. The gentleman, whose name I have withheld, approached me following his horrendous experience with a London council. From the initial inquiry to the day the couple brought their two little girls home, two and half years had passed. During this time, my constituent watched as couples he described as "wonderful people" dropped out of the disparaging process. "It is made much too difficult for good people to get through the process; the checks and balances, the intrusive visits. I had two social workers sit and watch my dogs all day."
He also encountered disruption from the courts. Their case was delayed for a good few months when the birth mother began procedures to object. At his point, the girls had been out of her care for over a year. "In law, you are taught that above all else, put the children first. It is simply not happening that way." This story has a happy ending, but for so many this isn’t the case. Whilst controversial, it is a commonly held belief amongst social workers and professionals working in adoption that birth parents are given too many opportunities to retain their children.
No matter how hopeless the case for appeal, an application for leave results in any settlement plans being abandoned. This de rigour action is incredibly destabilising for the child, and research shows that the more stressful the child’s experience, the more likely it is for them to experience slow brain development. It is no wonder, then, that a staggering 68.7% of children in care have a special educational need (March 2010 Statistical First Review).
I hope that the government, in overhauling the system, will give serious consideration as to how we can change these excessive procedures. I am by no means suggesting some sort of totalitarian, forced adoption scheme. But, a cut-off point must be debated, where if a child has not been in the care of their birth parents for 18 consecutive months or longer, then the option to appeal against an adoption could be removed. Alongside this must come earlier intervention and support for parents of at-risk children.
To rebuild a system free from skewed interests, we must be honest about where the delays occur. If a family has failed to provide for and care for their child, a new line must be drawn where we make it very clear that one more chance is a chance too many.