I write having listened with interest to the evidence session of the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on Tuesday 14th May which covered the suspension of the Adoption Register for England on 31st March this year and the government’s vision for the future of matching children with families.
As one of the largest and most successful independent adoption agencies in the UK Coram also ran the Adoption Register for England under contract to DfE for three of its 16 years until its suspension — effectively closure — on 31st March this year. We are instrumental in 10% of all placements made in England, more than any other agency.
We therefore welcome the Committee’s interest in this sector, and I would like to take this opportunity to set out our concerns, previously expressed, about the impact of the suspension of the Register on some of the most vulnerable children in our society and propose steps needed to secure their chances of placement in loving adoptive homes.
For many children who are more difficult to place - often those with additional needs, developmental uncertainty or in sibling groups — the specialist child-led searching of the Adoption Register by a dedicated team in Leeds has provided a key service to enable the identification of their ‘family for life’.
This issue is not the technological system but the fact that agencies were required to register any child or adopter waiting after 90 days. This provision has now been lost so there is a new risk some children will go unseen. In the last year alone, matches were found for 277 of the hardest to place children in this way and through Exchange Days bringing professionals together with adopters from across the country. These children could all have been “advertised” on the commercial system which provides the solution for many, but they were not “chosen”. The number of children matched by the independent register service quadrupled in the last three years despite the existence of other methods.
A child’s entitlement to find a permanent home should never be dependent on financial considerations, and the only a free national service to children waiting has been removed despite the fact that the costs of the service provided by the Register overall were recovered from the avoided childhood care costs of just one child placed.
Coram was the provider of the Public Sector digital service of the year in 2015 and we share the Minister’s aspiration that a new system may support the speeding up of the matching of children and approved adopters but suspension/closure of the Register is premature.
As the Minister himself acknowledged, we are currently in ‘an interim phase’. For hard to adopt children, any delay may already be too late. Many of the children we serve do not have the luxury of waiting for a new system to be embedded. It will also only be as effective as its use and unless children must be registered then some will not be.
The Adoption Register was the only registered, child-focussed pro-active independent service helping agencies to find adoptive homes for children when all other approaches have been tried. It was a vital extra chance for those who wait the longest - those with additional needs, developmental uncertainty, BAME or in sibling groups. It would have been far preferable in our view to maintain the Register during this transitional period, and make a decision about its longer term future, once the full national roll-out was complete.
The Register provided information to the courts via dedicated searches to provide them as decision maker about the potential number of prospective adopters that might be specifically available for a child should the court decide that was in their best interests. This was informed not only by numbers but by the profiles of children and track record of success.
Whilst we would take issue with description of the Register as ‘clunky’ and the Minister correctly points out the far higher proportion of children adopted through the main commercial provider, this is not surprising given the Register’s remit to place those children left behind and without any viable budget for technological development. This however is not the point and Coram is looking to the future to find ways to continue to support agencies which - despite the existence of technological matching approaches - cannot find loving homes for all too many children.
You can find further details on our position on suspension of the Register on our website, which includes an interview I gave to the Guardian at the time. Despite the announcement by the DfE in August 2018 that the Register contract would cease in March 2019, there was no slowdown in the number of these requests from practitioners across the country, indeed 118 requests were made in February 2019, with just over a month to go until service closure. At this point there were 925 children waiting and only 220 adopters, the worst insufficiency in memory.
Whilst we all hope that regional adoption agencies, once formed, will step up their sufficiency, this gap is unlikely to be closed without a concerted national effort.
What is needed now is not just a technological modernisation but a commitment to children-first approaches and all best practice methods. The Register provided such a service, and we have yet to be convinced that the government’s proposed alternative will enhance children’s life chances.
We believe that all children and adopters should be entitled to an independent service that tackle and overcome unconscious bias, regional demography and disparities in practice as well as financial disincentives.
Coram will continue to work with all relevant stakeholders across the sector to do the very best for those vulnerable children who most need our support and is today pioneering a new Be My Family service including activity days for fostering as well as adoption, and tools for recruitment and matching. We hope government will support us in delivering National Adoption Week to provide support to all agencies at this critical time.
I would be happy to answer any other questions you have on Coram’s work or on the future direction of adoption services, and provide any additional briefing on this area that you might need.
23 May 2019