Children and Families Bill

Memorandum submitted by Sir Martin Narey, Government Advisor on Adoption (CF 41)


Adoption Reforms in the Children and Families Bill 2012-2013

1. I believe this Bill delivers on this government's determination radically and permanently to reform adoption so that neglected and abused children get the stable and loving homes they need and as soon as practically possible. I'm very pleased that much of the Bill flows from recommendations I have made. Those recommendations have emerged following a period of almost two years during which I have explored policy and practice around adoption in some detail. I have visited almost every major voluntary adoption agency, more than twenty five local authorities and spent a great deal of time examining research around child neglect, care and adoption.

2. I hope that this Committee will feel able to support the Government reforms - I believe that some of them are considered to be controversial only because they are tackling genuinely sensitive issues such as: contact between children and birth relatives; placing children with their would-be adopters but in a fostering capacity while the legal processes unfold; and reducing the emphasis given to ethnicity, culture, linguistic background and religion when matching a child to adopters. I want to draw the attention of the Committee briefly to some of the reasons behind my support for those clauses of the Bill with which I've been most closely involved.

Fostering for Adoption

3. The first clause of the Bill allows likely future adopters of a child to foster that child in anticipation of the placement order. I first saw this operating some 12 months ago in East Sussex where an excellent and imaginative adoption team have been quietly using this route for some time to give earlier stability for children (the legislation simply clarifies the legality of the practice). The reform had already been put to me by John Simmonds at The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) who – without much success – had been urging this reform on DfE for some years.

4. Not all adopters will want to foster before adoption. They will fear the pain of a fostering placement not proceeding to adoption. That can and will happen. But overwhelmingly these placements will become permanent adoptions and the benefits of earlier placement for the children involved are not in dispute.

5. I know there has been some anxiety about whether or not the clause will lead to local authorities abandoning their duty to explore kinship care as the first option for a child who cannot return to his or her birth parents. Some of the concern around that issue is genuine. Some, quite simply, betrays a failure to understand the drafting of the clause. For my part I am clear that this clause does not relegate kinship care. If that were the case I would not have urged Ministers to pursue this initiative and would not now recommend it to the Committee. Kinship care must be considered first. But when a kinship placement is not appropriate for a child, and when adoption is seen as the likely and best option, then the new clause requires local authorities to prioritise fostering with the child’s likely future adopters where they are identified.

6. We know that it is vital for a child to achieve permanence as soon as possible. But we also know that even where adoption appears inevitable, the legal processes can mean that the length of time between coming into care and a placement order being granted is more often measured in years rather than months. And when a child is eventually placed with adopters it can involve a traumatic separation from long-term foster carers. Clause 1 will make such traumas – about which so many adopters have written to me – much less frequent.

Ethnicity and Delay

7. It is frequently – often mischievously – suggested that in changing the law on ethnicity and adoption, the government is suggesting that ethnicity doesn't matter. That is simply not true. What the government is doing – and partly as a result of my urging – is ensuring that ethnicity and cultural considerations do not unnecessarily veto an otherwise satisfactory adoption. In the United States and through President Clinton’s Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 the consideration of ethnicity in arranging an adoption has indeed been outlawed. I welcome the fact that this government are not proposing such a drastic change here. Ethnicity, culture, religion and linguistic background should and will continue to be factors to be considered during adoption. But the Bill will remove the express emphasis given to those factors which, in my view, has led to ethnicity, in particular, having a disproportionate priority in matching adopters to children. I can point the Committee in the direction of research which supports that view.

8. Guidance issued since the Labour Government’s 2002 Adoption and Children Act has continued to emphasise the intention of that Act which was to establish the priority which must be given to avoiding delay in adoption at the expense of matching children’s ethnicity, culture, religion or linguistic background to adopters. But local authorities have been slow to change practice established in the seventies and eighties which was utterly inflexible on issues of race. Some, at last, have begun to adjust their policies and to be much more flexible in what is known as ethnic matching. Others appear unmoved and continue to emphasise race above other considerations. I could direct the Committee toward local authorities whose adoption websites continue to emphasise the priority which is to be given to ethnicity despite research which demonstrates that transracial adoptions are no more vulnerable to disruption.

9. I believe that if there are two sets of adopters interested in adopting a black child, black adopters have an advantage. But when, as is so often the case, there are not enough black adopters available, then to continue to emphasise race is cruelly disadvantageous to black children. Moreover, at the moment there are cases where an emphasis is given to ethnicity or culture when, by any measure, such things should be of secondary consideration. I would wish to refer the Committee to Be My Parent magazine, published by BAAF and which essentially advertises children waiting for adoption. In a recent issue a little boy, T, who has significant developmental delay, is described as being "born with spina bifida … and will need continued [medical] support, including from a neurosurgeon for hydrocephalus. Professionals monitor his kidney function, orthopaedic needs and developmental progress. It is not known how much mobility he will have in the future." Remarkably, there are adopters willing to meet the challenge of bringing up children with complex needs. But the advertisement goes on to say that the family needed for T must be able to develop a sense of T's ethnic and cultural identity.

10. And this is not simply about black children. In the same magazine white brother and sister H and G are featured. But in this case, potential adopters should not offer themselves unless they can "reflect or actively develop the ethnic and cultural identity" of these two siblings, both of whom are Downs children. That’s what I mean when I talk sometimes about an obsession with ethnicity.

11. Local authorities have been commendably brave in supporting the adoption of children by gay parents. And they are right to do so because the evidence is clear that the disadvantage of a child growing up in a home where they are unlikely to share the sexuality of either of their parents is easily overcome. The evidence that white parents can, with sensitivity and support, similarly compensate for a difference in ethnicity between themselves and an adopted child is just as compelling. This Bill, will, I hope, ensure that social work practice responds to that reality.

Matching and the Register

12. Clause 6 takes a welcome step in the direction of opening up the closely protected process of matching to prospective adopters. The matching of children to adopters has become a quasi science but not one which has an evidential base which can stand up to too much scrutiny. Some local authorities use complex matrices to try and match the apparent skills of some adopters with the identified needs of children waiting for adoption.

13. The effort and time, which goes into matching, is well intentioned and many practitioners believe in it passionately. But the truth is that there is very little evidence to support the belief that matching specific adopters to specific children can be done with any real confidence. As Professors Julie Selwyn and David Quinton from the University of Bristol's Hadley centre for adoption and foster care studies have concluded:

Given the effort that goes into matching, it might be thought that there is good evidence that we know how often matching is achieved and that a good match makes a difference. Such research evidence is lacking: not just sparse, but virtually absent.

14. Meanwhile, children wait unnecessarily long for adoption because available adopters do not fit social workers’ sometimes idealistic view of the type of family a particular child needs. Despite recent improvements, approved adopters who may have already waited for many months before being admitted to the Adoption Register, wait on average, a further nine and a half months before being matched with a child.

15. If we are to find the adopters we need to give homes to the 7,000 children with placement orders who are waiting for adoption, we need to be much more open-minded about those we approve and then give the adopters themselves a much greater role in finding the right child for them. Matching works best not when it is something done to the adopters but involves them and trusts some of the chemistry involved in relationships. This is why I support clause 6 which would open up the adoption Register to prospective adopters (as well as the increased use of adoption parties which bring adopters and children awaiting adoption together).

March 2013

Prepared 20th March 2013