Last month I wrote about the disgraceful opposition from three charities to the Government's proposals to help more children in care be placed for adoption.
Decisions by the social workers and the courts are supposed to be made with the interests of the individual child paramount. Sadly, too frequently this is not the reality due to conflicting legal and ideological concerns
That is why the government hs been consulting on changes in two areas.
First is the presumption that siblings should be kept together. Often, if such a placement is not viable, they instead end up remaining in care. Then, when they are in care, they are placed with different foster carers anyway. And being placed together is not actually always in the best interests of each child. The interest of one sibling may be relegated to those of another. Or the interests of none of the children is best served – merely ideological prejudices.
Second, is the requirement for "contact" to be maintained with the birth mother. Often this is not really in the interests of the child at all and is disruptive to the placement with the adopted family. The prospect of such difficulties is then used as a reason for keeping the child in care.
I put in a Freedom of Information request to discover the consultation responses of local authorities.
My favourite contribution came from Lewisham Council, which is Labour-run. They gave a supportive response on both matters. It put children before ideology.
On the question of siblings:
We agree that the law should be more explicit. It should not be assumed that placing sibling groups together is always the best option for children. Experience shows it is not always successful. The individual needs of each child must be paramount. We further believe that there should be no requirement to report on the numbers of siblings placed together as this suggests this is the overriding issue in adoption when in fact we make careful judgements based on the best interests of individual children. A low scorecard rating for siblings placed together suggests poor performance when this is not necessarily the case at all. It must be acknowledged that the majority of children in care have specific needs following their experience of trauma, abuse and neglect that impacts on their ability to form secure relationships.
Further not all sibling relationships are” healthy”. Adopters are required to provide developmental reparenting and it may not be possible to do this with more than one child at a time. Often it is the older child whose placement disrupts and this is stressful and damaging for everyone.
On the issue of contact the response from Lewisham said:
We agree; contact must meet the needs of children not adults. In our experience some court appointed children’s Guardians have had unrealistic expectations about the level of contact between children and their parents during proceedings. Often the level of contact requested was disruptive for children with few obvious benefits for them. We agree that contact is important but as stated it must meet the needs of children. Sourcing suitable high quality contact facilities, including suitably skilled and experienced supervisors, can also be problematic.
We note the findings from the Coram model that contact with birth parents for children placed with their foster carers/future adopters, was often distressing and disruptive for the children. This would need to be factored into any guidance around contact between birth parents and children and reinforces the need to ensure that contact meets children’s needs, not adults.
Labour-run Plymouth was also positive, responding "we believe the proposal to enable courts to make a no contact order may be helpful."
However another Labour council, Stoke-on-Trent, said in their submission that "changes in guidance would probably be adequate" for sibling placements and that "presumption for contact" should remain.
Labour-run Leicester says: "We do not think changing the law will assist in making appropriate sibling placements." Social workers are fond of the word "appropriate." Yet the social workers of Leicester appear quite sanguine as to the "appropriateness" of having 495 Children in Care, with all the blighted leaves that figure represents. It is a dismally high total that has been steadily rising for years and equates to 70 children per 10,000 – as against 48 per 10,000 as an East Midlands average.
Conservative Staffordshire backed a legal change as "Legislation and Guidance should
be focused on the requirements to support sibling assessments rather
than the assumption that siblings should automatically remain together."
Conservative-run Norfolk also backed the proposals:
It was considered that there is a danger within legislation that the child had to fit the law/procedures and that their needs could not be fully supported. This was particularly relevant around contact issues with birth families.
We recognise, from our own work experience that sometimes individual children in a sibling group may have been so badly damaged by their pre-care experiences that placement with their siblings would prevent the latter being adopted.
Conservative-run Barnet felt that social workers should have to make clear that they are putting the child first:
It would be useful for care planning regulations to require the Local Authority to evidence how they have reached the decision around the placement of sibling groups for adoption together or separately.
The Bournemouth response backed "removal of the assumption in legislation, guidance and minimum standards that siblings should be kept together." Buckingham called for the new legal wording to give "emphasis that each case must be assessed according to its individual merits" and added that at present "imposing contact arrangement" by means of court orders "disempowers adoptive parents."
Councils backing the plans included Cumbria.
There were other comments which were ambigous in their conclusions or were clearly the individual views of a particular social worker. Most councils did not respond. Still there was an encouraging level of support. Remember, all that is being proposed is that there should be clarity about the interests of the child being paramount – rather than this being set against conflicting legal presumptions such as the "duty" to promote contact. So frequently exercising that "duty" induces misery and disruption for the child whose interests are supposed to be "paramount."
However, there were also Conservative councils that expressed opposition to
the Government's plans. In resisting these changes they do a disservice
to their residents who wish to adopt. Far more seriously, they do a
disservice to those children for whom the councillors are "corporate
parents" – those children for whom being placed for adoption, wherever
possible, would offer such a better prospect than remaining in care.
- Wokingham Council would oppose "legislation as that may lead to limited flexibility." It adds that : "The potential benefits of keeping siblings together must be weighed against other considerations such as achieving appropriate cultural matches." It also comes out against changing the law on contact arrangements.
- Bracknell Forest Council. Opposes legislation on both points. Feels that social workers should be allowed "flexibility" to decide.
- West Berkshire Council. Opposed legal changes to ease requirement for contact.
- North Yorkshire Council. "Current guidance is appropriate."
Some may shrug that these councils are just defending the status quo. But the status quo is an abject and ongoing disaster. I wonder how many of the Cabinet Members for Childrens Services were even aware of the complacent, self serving conclusions being sent to the Government in their name? Do these Cabinet Members see their role as to just go along to meetings, award ceremonies, and photo opportunities? Do they parrot the briefings their social workers give them and add a few platitudes about how important it is to be caring?
Some councillors may regard it as a bit too sensitive to get involved, something to "leave to the professionals" and "keep politics out of it." But this is a political matter. It is about a proposed change in the law. This has come about due to the change in Government two years ago. Both David Cameron and Michael Gove want to see more children adopted. Conservative councils should be emboldening them in this mission – not acting as a brake.