Education and Adoption Bill

Written evidence submitted by Link Maker Systems (EAB 02)

 

Summary

1. Regional adoption agencies would bring much needed improvements in some areas. Any mergers would also involve a great deal of disruption and cost for agencies already struggling with the de-stabilising effects of recent court cases. The government should therefore identify agencies in the first instance that could gain most from merging, and assist them to come together in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimises the risk of disruption or unintended consequences. The lessons learned should then inform the planning of any future mergers.

2. While an increase in the scale of adoption agencies may result in some children being matched more effectively, research indicates that children with complex needs may actually wait longer. These children are more likely to require a search beyond their own region for a suitable placement, and barriers to interagency matching, and a sense of ‘self-sufficiency’ in larger agencies, may together make the situation for these children worse.

3. The current barriers to interagency matching must be understood and addressed specifically, whether or not regional agencies are created. The problems will not be wholly solved by increasing agency size, and could be solved in other ways. Key issues that are dealt with in this submission are the interagency fee, variation in practice and policy, and sharing of adopters.

4. Adoption is first and foremost a service for children, but adopters also deserve fair treatment. At the point of considering adoption, most adopters have a choice of agencies and can choose the one that best meets their needs. It is important for adopters to also have the option of changing agency if the relationship with a social worker or manager breaks down. Regional agencies would reduce, or for many adopters remove, this choice. This should be one of the considerations in deciding the scale of any merger, and an alternative route should be provided for adopters who have problems with their agency that cannot be resolved internally.

5. The Adoption Register should be re-imagined to bring more benefit to the sector. It is not performing well as a tool for matching, and since agencies are avoiding its use the available data is far from complete. A mechanism should be employed to ensure that all children with a plan for adoption, and all adopters, are registered so that a detailed and accurate picture is always available. At the same time, the remit of the Register should change to one of monitoring and assessing this overall picture, and the journeys of individual children who wait the longest.

6. Greater benefit for more children could be achieved by a broadening of the Bill, or with further Bills. There are deep-rooted problems elsewhere in children’s social care. Within fostering for example, financial and organizational considerations play a large part in the choice of placements, often leaving little room for the individual needs of the child. This results in unsuitable placements and multiple care moves, which contribute to the emotional and behavioral difficulties of children. This will include many of the children who subsequently struggle to find adoptive placements, and to focus on matching solely within adoption misses perhaps the largest part of the picture, and the area of greatest potential improvement.

Introduction

7. Link Maker is a social enterprise run by adoptive parents that provides online systems for collaboration in children’s social care. In 2014 it introduced ‘Adoption Link’, a website allowing adopters to take a lead in identifying potential matches, and crucially also giving social workers access to over 2,200 approved adopters UK-wide. Both adopters and social workers view the service as the most useful available for finding matches (Practitioner survey / 2, Dance) It is being used by 80% of Local Authorities in England to match between 30 and 40 children per month (1, performance data). ‘Placement Link’ will soon offer the same benefits within fostering and residential care.

8. The Adoption Link service has significantly improved matching in a short space of time, and has brought about a number of positive changes in practice. For example, Local Authorities are now identifying matches with adopters from other agencies much earlier, before the granting of a placement order. This in turn has removed one of the incentives for Local Authorities to try to match ‘in-house’, rather than looking more widely. The case has successfully been made that effective systems can themselves bring about great improvements in efficiency, collaboration and practice, whatever the scale of the organisations using them.

9. Our submitted evidence draws on our experience and usage statistics, and on other data and research. Adoption Link has conducted two surveys relating to the Bill, referenced below as ‘Adopter survey’ (based on 655 responses) and ‘Practitioner survey" (based on 302 responses). Each survey consisted of a small number of quantative questions, and an open invitation to express views relating to the Bill. Links to the full findings of each survey can be found at the end of this submission.

Merging the right agencies

 

10. In the survey, adoption practitioners highlighted areas in which some agencies would perform better at a larger scale:

"For small agencies who are surrounded by other small agencies it will open up the pool of children / adopters and get rid of the geographical issues associated with support."

"For those LA's and agencies who don't collaborate and only place within their authority will be made to consider matching outside at a much earlier stage."

(Practitioner survey)

11. Some also referenced existing merged services that they consider to have been successful, with respect to the scale of the merger:

"Four 4 adoption work closely already in terms of family finding and are continuing to look at whether we can work even more closely in the future. I don’t think that merging with a greater number of agencies or with other agencies will be necessary or helpful; a maximum of 4 agencies works best, I would say from experience gained thus far."

(Practitioner survey)

12. Practitioners felt, on the whole, that their agencies already collaborate well. A significant majority of comments expressed this:

"I believe that as a service we always endeavour to be child led in our family finding - this means that we will search countrywide to find adopters who can best meet the child's individual needs. We do not see how we can alter our practise to make it more effective or collaborative as we currently work in this manner."

"The addition of Adoption Link to the matching arena has proved useful and did not require a total merger with any authority, rather a clearly defined process with user involvement."

"We have always collaborated with other agencies regionally and this continues to offer the best results for our children; I don't see why it should be necessary to merge services to do this."

(Practitioner survey)

13. Many practitioners felt that merging would be ineffective, or counter-productive:

"It would not help at all, it would do the opposite.. It would be a massive hindrance. It would cause enormous upheaval … and the reorganisation which would detract from our core tasks."

"The children for whom we have difficulty finding suitable adopters are, in terms of their needs, basically the same children everyone has difficulty homefinding for. Sharing resources – the way we do now or by merging services – would not change that basic shortfall of suitable resources but what merging would do is add layers of fudgability between resource need, identification of that need and (most importantly) recruitment activity and thus make it less likely that we would improve services further."

"It would be like making a steam train when a sports car is what we need. Adoption Link has had an enormous impact on the way we work, increasingly so as other agencies bit by bit have begun using it - the difference is still extending, some agencies local to us have only started using A/L very very recently, the full benefits are yet to be felt."

(Practitioner survey)

14. Prospective adopters were more critical of how agencies currently work together, and were more optimistic about the benefits of regional adoption agencies.

"Some agencies choose not to work with other agencies. Meaning that there might be a match for you but your agency will not pursue this match."

(Adopter survey)

The ‘self sufficiency’ risk

 

15. On the face of things, if an agency were reluctant to collaborate with others in matching, increasing the size of that agency would improve the situation. There are problems with this however.

A study into matching practice commissioned by the Government has indicated that within larger authorities children with complex needs can actually experience more delay than within smaller agencies:

"A key difference was in local authorities’ willingness to widen the search for adoptive families and place out of area. A reluctance to pursue inter-agency placements affected 70% of delayed cases in three county authorities and featured rarely in the other seven authorities. County authorities, which were more able to place in house than smaller agencies in urban areas, used inter-agency placements less, which led to more delay in finding placements for children with complex needs (although they were good at achieving swift matches for children without complex needs)."

(3, Farmer & Dance)

16. A service such as Adoption Link will tend to hold the children who are harder to place, since other children are more likely to matched ‘in-house’. Of the 250 children matched through Adoption Link so far, approximately half were placed with families from a neighboring region. Around a further 25% were placed with families from further way than this. For these children, even with the creation of regional adoption agencies, the barriers to finding the right match would still apply. This would indicate that many other children who might otherwise be placed with a suitable family from a different region would still face these barriers, and may wait longer if their agency tended to rely on its own resources.

The interagency fee

 

17. The interagency fee is a significant barrier to children being matched with suitable families. It is paid by a Local Authority on placing a child with an adopter from a different agency, to cover the cost of recruiting, assessing and supporting the adopter. Depending on whether an agency is paying or receiving the fee, it may view it as being too high, or too low. Either way, the end result can be a Local Authority favoring its ‘own’ adopters above those from elsewhere, or worse, not considering families from other agencies at all.

Several practitioners commented on this:

"some agencies do not have funding for interagency placements which has the reverse effect and children in some areas are waiting longer and are older as a consequence."

"whilst the inter agency fee remains I doubt it will make much difference"

(Practitioner survey)

18. ..as well as adopters:

"We have enquired about children who we feel we would be a good match for and have heard nothing back simply because we are not part of their agency and told by our agency that interagency transfers cost too much money."

"The interagency fee cost us a match just before panel. They went with a local authority couple at the v last minute. Scrap inter agency fees and the priority that local authority adopters have over other agencies. Both are causing problems"

(Adopter survey)

19. Regardless of the extent to which regional agencies are created, an alternative financial mechanism must be found for interagency placements. This may be a national fund that removes the need for agencies to exchange a fee directly, and would create a level playing field that would ensure that children’s needs are at the centre of matching decisions.

Variation in practice, policy and support

 

20. A further barrier to agencies collaborating effectively in matching is the variation that may exist in agency’s processes, and how they support families. As with the interagency fee, creating regional agencies would address this problem only to the extent of potential matches within the region. A recent investigation of adopter’s experiences of matching summarized that:

"Some adopters wrote of having formed the impression that interagency matches were harder work for the agency and they explained how they were told that interagency matches can be problematic because of distance (both for the adopters and child in terms of introductions and contact visits – and for social workers in finding the time to travel for visits). Differences between agencies in protocols and practices had also been identified to adopters as potential problems, as had concerns about access to post-adoption support."

(2, Dance)

21. This was also commented on by practitioners:

"what would help is if there were more consistency in how agencies support adopters financially ( eg expenses to attend meetings etc prior to panel, settling in grants, eligibility for adoption allowances etc) it is variable and confusing for all involved"

(Practitioner survey)

22. And by adopters:

"I am concerned by the delays caused by poor communication within and between agencies as well as the difference in procedures followed by agencies, which is confusing when you are adopting outside your own agency and/ or region."

(Adopter survey)

Sharing adopters

 

23. A wider range of adopters could be made available for children simply by clarifying regulations and guidance. Some Local Authorities still resist making their adopters available for children elsewhere, and adopters are currently unable to challenge this. Approved adopters are often 'held on to' for 3 months or more, while there may well be children waiting in other areas for which they could be a suitable family. 

"it is of concern that some 29% of respondents (nearly a third) felt that they were not encouraged to search widely for a match – or, if they were, this was only several months after approval"

(2, Dance)

"Our local authority seem reluctant to share our profile even though they have very few children waiting for adoption."

"we had to wait three months after being approved as adoptive parents before we could have the option of being matched with children regionally/nationally outside of the county which has delayed things and been very frustrating"

(Adopter survey)

24. In the current climate, with relatively more adopters compared to children waiting, the impact of this on children may be somewhat reduced. In different times, when adopters are in shorter supply, the impact may be significant. In any case it reduces choice, and is unfairly restrictive for adopters wanting to offer a home to a child.

25. The problems of the interagency fee, practice variation and sharing of adopters must be solved whether or not agencies merge. If agencies do not merge, solving these problems may still go a long way to removing barriers to effective collaboration in matching. If regional agencies are created it is just as important that these issues are addressed. Otherwise, as the study (3) suggests, for some children the wait for a suitable match may actually become longer, rather than shorter.

Adopter choice

 

26. Variations in agency policy can, as well as creating problems, be to the advantage of prospective adopters. Over 40% of adopters felt that it was ‘very important’ to them to be able to speak to a number of agencies, and choose the one that was the best fit for them. More significantly, over 80% felt it was ‘very important’ to have the option of changing to an alternative agency in their area if things aren’t working out. 40% of prospective adopters had had cause to consider changing agency during their process. (Adopter survey)

This was commented on by adopters:

"We were amazed at how each agency LA or VA can have differing criteria."

(Adopter survey)

27. ..and also practitioners:

"I do not feel merging services is the right way forward. As a voluntary agency we feel choice and diversity is very important to give a service which enables adopters to find the agency best for them."

(Practitioner survey)

28. In this respect, there is an argument for not increasing the scale of agencies too far, and not beyond a scale that would allow most people a workable travelling time to at least two different agency offices. There is also an argument for ensuring a minimum level of inclusivity, service and accountability within all agencies. One adopter commented:

"I think the issue is to make sure that every agency is inclusive rather than have a myriad of agencies catering for specific adopters."

(Adopter survey)

29. One major issue that currently exists is the lack of a suitable place for adopters to turn if they feel they have been mistreated by an agency, either during approval or matching. The Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) exists for adopters who have been given a ‘no’ at panel, but in any other situation an adopter has only the agency’s own complaints procedure at their disposal. This is often not considered a viable option due the fear of appearing ‘difficult’, and losing the chance of an onward journey with any agency.

30. A new service should be made available nationally to provide impartial arbitration for adopters in such cases. The service would serve to monitor experiences, and provide new transparency and accountability of agency practice. This would be beneficial in any event, but particularly if adopters’ ability to change agency were reduced.

The Adoption Register

 

31. The Adoption Register should be re-imagined to bring more benefit to the sector, as it is not performing well as a tool for interagency matching. The current statutory basis of the Register stifles innovation from other sources, and 70% of practitioners felt that the legal requirement should change. (Practitioner survey). Compared to the Register, around 4 times more adopters find Adoption Link ‘very useful’ for finding links (2, Dance), while around 6 times more social workers find it ‘very useful’ for finding matches (Practitioner survey).

32. The deficiencies with the Register were commented on by practitioners:

"In the past four years I don't think I have made any matches either through the consortium or the register. My view on the register is that it always seems one step behind."

"We are having little success through Adoption Register, or publishing children in various magazines. Adoption Link has been much more helpful in getting results, and finding adopters for children, and we have made a good number of inter-agency placements."

(Practitioner survey)

33. The data available from the Register is incomplete, with only around 400 of the 3,000 children waiting. Several practitioners highlighted the need for complete data:

"I think all agencies should place children on the Register mainly for national stat purposes so that a clear record can be kept"

"I think there need to be a central record of the children and families available nationally, that is why I support retaining the compulsory use of the adoption register."

(Practitioner survey)

34. We believe that agencies should have the freedom, in law, to use whichever family-finding tools they feel are most appropriate. In many cases, for children who are not difficult to place, a local or regional search in the first instance may be more appropriate. Services such as Adoption Link provide this degree of control while allowing a search to be quickly widened at any point, reducing delay. This is one of the reasons why it has become a preferred tool both for individual agencies, and for regional consortia that wish to work together as closely as possible.

35. At the same time we believe that Government should retain a statutory way to ensure that the best is being done for the hardest to place children, as well as having a detailed, accurate set of data on the children and adopters who are waiting. Currently this data is difficult to collect, and is only as accurate as the periodic data collection process allows. An example of how valuable data could be made available can be found on the Adoption Link website, which presents a detailed picture of the children, and adopters, currently on the system. This can be broken down into regions, and expanded to show detail of, for example, adopters’ criteria and children’s needs. (1, Adoption Link performance data)

36. We propose that whenever an agency decides that a child or sibling group should be placed for adoption, it should lodge basic statistical information with the Register, such as age and ethnicity. The agency would be given, in turn, a reference code that would be required on all future documentation, such as court papers, and referrals to family-finding services. In this way, it would be possible to cross-reference every child’s current situation without sharing, or storing, identifying information.

37. Where a child or sibling group has been waiting for a long time, the Register would be aware in every case and would be able to follow-up with the Local Authority involved, and examine the reasons for the lack of progress. As well as monitoring and reporting, the Register could assist agencies in making the best choices for a child, including exploring other placement schemes and permanence options.

38. References

(1) Adoption Link performance data

https://www.adoptionlink.co.uk/data

(2) Finding the right match: a survey of approved adopters’ experiences of agency support in the linking and matching process.

Cherylin Dance, March 2015

https://www.adoptionlink.co.uk/doc/finding_the_right_match_full.pdf

(3) An investigation of family finding and matching in adoption

Elaine Farmer, Cherilyn Dance et al. June 2010.

http://www.adoptionresearchinitiative.org.uk/briefs/DFE-RBX-10-05.pdf

Adopter survey, Adoption Link, June 2015. 655 respondents.

https://www.surveymonkey.net/results/SM-KY2XT9BD/

Practitioner survey, Adoption Link, June 2015. 302 respondents.

https://www.surveymonkey.net/results/SM-DWDPY8GD/

June 2015

Prepared 30th June 2015