Adoption: Post-Legislative Scrutiny - Select Committee on Adoption Legislation Contents

Chapter 2: Adoption in Context

15.  The legal history of adoption can be traced back to the Adoption of Children Act 1926, which replaced the widespread practice of unregulated de facto adoption with a legal route for the permanent and secure transfer of orphans and illegitimate children to new parents. Before the Adoption and Children Act 2002 the most recent statute on adoption was the Adoption Act 1976, which was not fully implemented until 1988. By then, the model of adoption which that legislation was predicated upon had largely ceased to exist.

Changes in societal attitudes and the effects on adoption

16.  From the peak of nearly 25,000 in 1968, the annual number of adoptions has fallen steadily, and only 3,450 children were adopted in 2011-12. This decline in numbers reflects the changing purpose of adoption over recent decades. During the peak years of adoption, 51% of all adoptions were of babies, and 92% of adoptions were of 'illegitimate' children.[10] Changes in societal attitudes, coupled with the improved availability of contraception and the legislation on abortion[11], along with increases in financial support for single mothers, have reduced the number of children being given up for adoption. This means that very few children under 12 months are adopted—only 70 babies were adopted in 2011-12.[12] There is, however, the potential for many more babies to be adopted: at 31 March 2012 there were 3,670 looked-after children under 12 months for whom a local authority had decided that adoption would meet their best interests; when and if a placement order is secured, these children may be placed for adoption.[13]

17.  Today most children adopted in England are adopted from local authority care. The majority of children taken into care are there due to concerns about abuse or neglect (see Box 1: Children in care & leaving care). For those children who are not able to return home to their birth families adoption provides a route out of the care system.


Children in care and leaving care[14]
Children in care at 31 March 2012:
Total   67,050
By placement type:
Foster placement 50,260 (75%)
Placed for adoption     2,680 (4%)
Placement with parents   3,600 (5%)
Other placement in the community   2,340 (3%)
Secure units, children's homes, hostels   5,930 (9%)
Other residential settings   1,020 (2%)
Residential schools   960 (1%)
Other placement   120 (--)
By age:
Under 1 4,190 (6%)
1 to 4     12,430 (19%)
5 to 9   12,700 (19%)
10 to 15 24,150 (36%)
16 and over     13,580 (20%)
Children entering care April 2011-March 2012
Total   28,220
Category of need:
Abuse or neglect 15,670 (56%)
Child's disability   840 (3%)
Parents illness or disability   1,070 (4%)
Family in acute stress   2,850 (10%)
Family dysfunction   5,010 (18%)
Socially unacceptable behaviour 830 (3%)
Low income   80 (--)
Absent parenting 1,880 (7%)
Children leaving care April 2011-March 2012
Total 27,350
Reason for leaving:
Adopted 3,450 (13%)
Died 40 (--)
Care taken by another local authority 190 (1%)
Returned home to parents or relatives 10,160 (37%)
Residence Order granted 1,290 (5%)
Special Guardianship order made 2,130 (8%)
Moved into independent living 3,720 (14%)
Transferred to residential social care funded by adult social services 470 (2%)
Sentenced to custody 420 (2%)
Care ceased for any other reason 5,500 (20%)
All figures relate to England only.


Children adopted April 2011-March 2012
Total   3,450
By age:
Under 1 70 (2%)
1 to 4   2,550 (74%)
5 to 9   740 (21%)
10 to 15 80 (2%)
16 and over   10 (--)
Category of need:
Abuse or neglect 2,490 (72%)
Child's disability 10 (--)
Parents illness or disability   130 (4%)
Family in acute stress 220 (6%)
Family dysfunction 460 (13%)
Socially unacceptable behaviour   20 (--)
Low income 10 (--)
Absent parenting 110 (3%)
Average age at adoption 3 years and 8 months
Average time between entry into care and decision that child should be placed for adoption 11 months
Average time between decision that child should be placed for adoption and matching of child and adopters 10 months
Average time between date of matching and date placed for adoption 1 month
Total average time between entry into care and adoption   2 years and 7 months
All figures relate to England only.

18.  This change has had a number of significant effects, which the Adoption and Children Act 2002 sought to address. First, most children are now adopted at an older age than was previously the case. The average age at adoption is now 3 years and 8 months (see Box 2: Adoption). As a result an adopted child may have memories of their birth family; they may also have ongoing relationships with siblings or other family members. Issues of contact with the birth family often need to be addressed and managed. We discuss, in Chapter 8, the provisions for post-adoption contact in the Adoption and Children Act 2002.

19.  Secondly, many more adoptions are contested. Birth families are often unwilling to give up their children, both to the care system and then, ultimately, to adoption. Social workers and the courts have to apply the law to resolve these issues in the best interests of the child.

20.  Thirdly, the contested nature of many care cases and adoptions means that children can be forced to suffer both delay and instability. Whilst court cases and legal issues are progressing, children can find themselves moved between care homes, foster parents and other forms of temporary care. This instability can compound and intensify attachment and behavioural issues which the children may already face as a result of exposure to harm in their early life. We discuss the impact of such delay and instability in Chapter 4, and the case for post-adoption support Chapter 7.

Adoption and permanence

21.  In the Action Plan for Adoption the Government stated that "in many cases adoption is the best option—particularly for younger children, but also for some older children. Adoption gives vulnerable children, including many with complex needs and a history of ill-treatment, the greatest possible stability, in a permanent home with a permanent family. It is, in every sense of the word, for good."[16]

22.  Adoption is intended to bring permanence and stability to the lives of children who may have experienced trauma and instability in early life. Adoption is in many ways unique. It confers a new legal status on the child who is "to be treated in law as if born as the child of the adopters."[17] Parental responsibility for the child becomes the sole preserve of the adopters, and the parental responsibility of the birth family comes to an end. A new family is therefore created, with permanent legal relationships. This life-long transformative change sets adoption apart from other routes out of the care system.

23.  The Government acknowledged in the Action Plan that adoptions do break down in some cases but that they currently had "too little data and evidence about it."[18] They have commissioned the University of Bristol to undertake further research into the rate and reasons for adoption breakdown. We comment on the absence of relevant data in paragraphs 200 to 206.

24.  We recognise the unique nature of adoption and its potential to enhance the lives of children by providing a life-long, permanent route out of the care system. We agree with the Government that there is scope to increase the number of children benefitting from adoption.

Other routes to permanence

25.  Adoption is a route out of care for a relatively small proportion of children. This is principally a reflection of the age profile of the care population in England: 75% are over 5 years of age; 56% are over the age of ten.[19] For many of this group it may not be appropriate for the link with birth parents to be severed, or for them to be integrated fully and legally into a new family.

26.  The Action Plan for Adoption recognised that for many children—in particular older children—long-term fostering was the best care option. This can sometimes be with wider family members, or family friends. Fostering does not involve the creation of a new legal family; parental responsibility is shared between the birth parents and the local authority.

27.  The Adoption and Children Act 2002 created Special Guardianship Orders (SGOs), which provide another route to permanence. Special guardians share parental responsibility with the birth parents and have responsibility for day to day decisions about caring for a child or young person. Unlike adoption, the basic legal link with the birth parents is retained. They remain legally the child's parents, though their ability to exercise their parental responsibility is limited. This provision was intended to cater for older children who may wish to retain links to their birth family, and who were therefore not suitable for adoption. Since their introduction in 2002 the number of SGOs granted has grown each year; there were 2,130 Special Guardianship Orders granted in England in the year to March 2012.[20]

28.  It is permanence that is important, rather than the particular 'type' of permanence that is chosen. Professor June Thoburn, from the Centre for Research on the Child and Family at the University of East Anglia, suggested that "for a majority of children and some prospective parents it is 'a sense of permanence' and being confident of being 'a family for life' that is the key to success rather than the particular legal order."[21]

29.  Concern was expressed by several witnesses that the Government's focus on adoption risked neglecting permanency solutions for those children for whom adoption was not suitable.[22] The Who Cares? Trust told us:

    " ... the Government's current focus creates a grave risk that, in a drive to increase the number of children who are adopted, policy making for children in care in England is becoming the poor relation. The logical consequence is that local services will disproportionately divert their focus and resources towards a minority of the children in their care, leaving others at risk of continued poor outcomes."[23]

30.  Nagalro, the professional association for Children's Guardians, Family Court Advisers and Independent Social Workers, echoed the concern over the application of resources:

    "Over-emphasis on adoption risks directing resources away from the whole range of looked-after children including those for whom other permanence options are preferable."[24]

31.  There were calls for a more wide-ranging review of care and permanency options, rather than singling out adoption for reform. TACT, the fostering and adoption charity and voluntary agency, argued that:

    "The care system should be reviewed as a whole so a holistic approach to ensuring the best and appropriate outcomes for those children who enter care should be preferred...a piecemeal approach to reform is rarely effective."[25]

32.  Action for Children called for "a system which has at its heart a drive to find the right placement for each individual child, rather than creating a false hierarchy of care—where adoption is interpreted as being the preferred care option."[26]

33.  While adoption is valuable in transforming the lives of those children who benefit from it, it can only provide a solution to a small proportion of children in the care system. Long-term fostering, special guardianship and the placement with friends or family, referred to as kinship care, are also worthy of attention and support. In focusing exclusively on adoption, there is a real risk of overlooking the needs of the vast majority of children in care for whom adoption is not appropriate. The outcomes for all children in care must be the focus of concern and investment.

  1. Adoption is only one solution for providing children in care with the love, stability and support that they need. Long-term fostering, kinship care and special guardianship play a significant role in meeting the needs of many of the children who cannot be cared for by their birth parents. These permanency options merit equal attention and appropriate investment, both by Government and by agencies working at the national and local level. Improving the outcomes for all looked-after children should be the objective.

10   Professor N V Lowe, Cardiff Law School, written evidence Back

11   The Abortion Act 1967 came into force on 27 April 1968. Nearly 190,000 abortions took place in England and Wales in 2011 compared with 22,332 in 1968 Back

12   Statistical First Release, Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2012, Department for Education, 25 September 2012: Back

13   HL Deb, 8 January 2013, WA3 [HL4259] Back

14   All figures in Box 1 are taken from the Statistical First Release, Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2012, Department for Education, 25 September 2012: Back

15   All figures in Box 2 are taken from the Statistical First Release, Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2012, Department for Education, 25 September 2012: Back

16   An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay, Department for Education, March 2012, paragraph 4.  Back

17   Adoption and Children Act 2002, section 67 (1) Back

18   An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay, Department for Education, March 2012, paragraph 34. Back

19   Statistical First Release, Children looked after in England (including adoption and care leavers) year ending 31 March 2012, Department for Education, 25 September 2012: Back

20   The Department of Education has commissioned the University of York in collaboration with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering to conduct a study of the use of Special Guardianship Orders; the final report is expected in June 2014.  Back

21   Professor June Thoburn, written evidence Back

22   Written evidence from: Alliance for Child-Centred Care, BAAF, Family Rights Group, Kinship Care Alliance, Nagalro, TACT, The Who Cares? Trust Back

23   The Who Cares? Trust, written evidence Back

24   Nagalro, written evidence Back

25   TACT, written evidence Back

26   Action for Children, written evidence Back

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