When the Femail section of the Daily Mail opines ‘Children’s Minister Tim Loughton has just earned his place in Heaven’; the Standard refers to ‘a piece of good common-sense’ and the Guardian talks about a possible ‘voice of sanity’ then you know you are on to something.
The reaction to my announcement this week about the urgent need to remove obstacles to adoption was positive, widespread and in some cases surprising. Yet by the end of the week the Guardian had reverted to type with an article comparing my policy as promoting fake controversy in the same terms as Harriet Harman’s ill-judged ‘ginger rodent’ comments and Stephen Fry’s unlikely expertise on the sex life of women. But the debate had well and truly started.
But this debate is not a new one. When I led for the Opposition in scrutinising the Adoption Bill in 2002 one of our major targets was the political correctness which left too many black and ethnic minority children languishing in care in the absence of a ‘perfect’ cultural match. The Adoption Act, as it became, was supposed to be a landmark measure to improve adoption numbers and remove obstacles that were keeping so many damaged children in long term care when many more could enjoy the benefits of a second chance of a stable loving family upbringing that adoption offered.
Eight years on we have seen dramatic rises in the number of children in care, too many of them being shuffled from one temporary foster placement to another and too few of them emerging from care with decent prospects in education, health and life chances generally. Remember, almost two thirds of children in care leave school with no qualifications.
Recent figures showed a worrying drop in the numbers of children who make it into a successful adoption placement yet we know that a child adopted early enough in a strong, safe and stable home has every chance of catching up with those children lucky enough to grow up with their own parents. Most worryingly it is black boys in care who fared worst, taking three times as long to adopt as white children, with many staying in care through to adulthood. And again as we know, statistically too many of them are headed for the youth justice system.
In short the improvements promised in the 2002 Adoption & Children Act have lost momentum and we are failing an increasing number of children entering the care system with all the tragic consequences both financially and socially. We need to do a lot better. The obsession by some people to find the perfect ethnic match for a BME child even if it means years of delay or no match at all is only part of the problem. But it is endemic of failings in the system where surely the most important consideration must be: can a prospective adoptive couple offer a loving, stable and safe home for a child suitable for adoption – regardless of colour, shape, size or whatever? And if they can then for goodness sake let’s get on with it – two months represents 1% of a child’s childhood and once gone you don’t get it back.
Adoption and children in care are of course the responsibility of local authority children’s services departments. Some do it very well, adopting twice as many children, and twice as fast as neighbouring authorities. One, Harrow, has farmed out the whole of its adoption service to the charity Coram with impressive success. Other departments appear to be run by people in awe of the gospel according to Harriet Harperson. When you go on to the adoption pages of one London council’s website for example, you are greeted by the opening lines:
‘Most children ( in authority x) waiting to be adopted are Black or of mixed heritage… we aim to place these children with families who share their own background as closely as possible, as we know this is the best way to meet a child’s needs. So we’re looking for Black African, Black Caribbean and mixed heritage families who can understand and respect a child’s ethnic and cultural background.’
Little wonder that too many families able to offer good adoptive placements complain they never make it through the front door because being white, middle class and heterosexual equates to ‘not wanted here.’ Is it inappropriate for someone from a protestant Scandinavian background to adopt a child born to Catholic Mediterranean parents? By the same token can only people with disabilities be capable of adopting disabled children? Or is it after all rather more about the colour of the skin of the child, even in our modern multicultural society where opportunities to engage with and reflect countless other cultures and heritages are available for any of us or our own children at every turn?
An ITV programme on adoption I contributed to last week also raised bizarre cases of parents turned away by local authorities from adopting children with Latin American heritage living locally, but deemed fit by the same authorities to travel half way round the world to adopt orphans from Guatemala or Mexico! How can this be justified? Sure, a cultural and ethnic match for a child awaiting adoption is desirable but it should not be a deal breaker when the alternative is being denied the prospect of a permanent placement for longer or as is often the case, permanently.
Similarly, there are many myths surrounding who can actually adopt with many people surveyed thinking that being overweight, smokers or holding strong religious views automatically excluded you from adopting. None of this is true, and just like ethnic matching, is certainly not prescribed by Government, yet clearly we need to issue new guidance making it crystal clear what matters most to children who deserve to be adopted. When I took a week out recently being a social worker on the front line in Stockport I spent a fascinating day with the Adoption Panel. Very sensibly they were adamant that every potential adopter should be judged own his or her own merits and no one was automatically excluded. Why is this not happening in practice everywhere?
There are many other factors contributing to the drop-off in adoption figures that we need to fix too. Some local authorities insist on prioritising adoptions with prospective adopters in house rather than treating voluntary adoption agencies on a level playing field even when they have high quality adopters readily available and a better record of making adoptions last. One in five adoptions breaks down with enormous damage to children who have often lost hope of finding a stable family yet intelligent pre-adoption preparation with new parents and post adoption support in those crucial early months and years can make all the difference.
With this, as with so much in child protection, having well trained and supported social workers able to spend more time on the front line with vulnerable children and families freed from bureaucracy in front of computers and filling in forms, is crucial. That is why the review of Children’s Social Work we have commissioned from Professor Eileen Munro, and which reports next spring, is vital.
Too much time is being wasted in the to-ing and fro-ing between adoption panels and the family courts, already creaking under the pressures of additional care proceedings and the longstanding weaknesses within CAFCASS. Again this is being urgently addressed in part by the Family Justice Review being conducted by David Norgrove. There is a small number of babies born to mothers who are clearly incapable of offering a long term future to their children, usually having lost previous children into care and incapable of escaping from inveterate alcohol or drug addictions. For them we need to admit that those children are destined to long term care and fast track them into a permanent adoption placement wherever possible, especially with the ‘half-way’ house of Special Guardianship Orders now widely utilised. For others we need to expand concurrent adoption, where children start in foster care with a view to stepping up to adoption by the same parents.
There are, of course, cases where children have been taken away from their birth parents and ended up being placed for adoption in highly questionable circumstances and we need to improve practice and transparency in the courts wherever that is happening. Arbitrary adoption targets producing perverse outcomes have been blamed for this and there is no way I will be calling for a return to that ‘target culture’. And of course the majority of children are given up voluntarily by their parents for adoption. None of this is good reason to row back on the simple fact that for many more children adoption is a highly desirable and more readily available opportunity to convert an often chaotic childhood into a decent second chance at a stable loving upbringing.
We have failed vulnerable children failed by their own families for too long. It is a social scandal and a false economy to allow this to continue. If that failure is being exacerbated by political correctness, excessive bureaucracy and flawed mindsets then it is incumbent on every Conservative to bring pressure to bear and make sure that every local authority hauls up the sign ‘Adoption – come on in. We’re open for business and everyone’s welcome!’