The recent announcement of changes to the process of adoption has bought the really important subject of adoption to the forefront of the family law agenda again. Adoption results in what is often seen as the legal transplantation of a child from their birth family to a new permanent commonly unrelated family, it is irreversible (Webster v Norfolk CC EWCA civ 59) and is often voluntarily agreed to by the birth parents. However this is not always the case, and there are provision’s in the Adoption and Children Act to dispense with parental consent (s .52). While adoption is often seen as a panacea, and no one would argue with Michael Gove that for most children it is an amazing opportunity and second chance, there are arguments against adoption as a solution (http://www.childprotectionresource.org.uk/forced-adoption/ ), to at least consider.
On the second of November David Cameron gave the BBC a statement of his intentions; he said ‘I want to do everything we can to make sure children are placed in loving homes as soon as possible’. In order to achieve this, he wants to double the numbers of children placed with their prospective adopters as foster children. At the moment only 10% of placements are fostering for adoption placements and David Cameron wants this to rise to 500 a year. Further, he wants all Local Authority adoption services to merge into large regional and specialist centres by 2020. He believes that the merging and streamlining of services will ensure all potently adopted children will have access to ten times as many ‘forever homes’ as is the case at present.
For as long as I have been involved in family law, the desire to speed up the process and ensure children are adopted quickly has been the constant rhetoric of the adoption debate, for example Tony Blair’s children languishing in care speech in 2000, mirrors the present debate. This is not surprising because the once children are in the care system the clock really is ticking, the last year we have figures for ending March 2014 there were 5,050 adoptions three quarters of which were of children in the one to four year age range and less than one hundred were babies (ONS). These figures make it starkly clear that the older the child, the likelihood of a successful placement diminishes. To illustrate this, there has recently been a TV series following some of these older children as Local Authorities take more and more drastic efforts to find them homes for example activity days and adoption fairs www.channel4.com/programmes/finding–mum-and-dad.
Yet, despite a strong political and policy drive to speed up rates and decision making the same problems remain. The average time it takes for a child to be placed remains stubbornly high, at two years four months. So if a child enters into the care system at two years old (a common age, when social workers have exhausted their attempts to keep a family together), it takes a further two years plus to place the child, at which point they have become ‘too old’ to be likely to be placed whilst in the looked after system.
Cameron’s statement is a reiteration of the Education and Adoption Bill which is now in the House of Lords at the Committee stage. The Bill includes provision to force Local Authorities to merge their adoption services and increase the use of fostering for adoption.
While adoption is seen as the solution for many children it worth taking a moment to consider that adoption without parental consent is not a universal family arrangement, and most European countries do not entertain such a draconian interference in the family. Structures of long term and formal fostering are much more common in Europe where parents do not agree to the adoption of their child. There are also alarming statistics (http://www.baaf.org.uk/res/statengland) that suggest that the breakdown and disruption rates for adoption placements are between ten and twenty percent. Thus creating a further tragedy for already vulnerable children, who are returned to the care system after suffering a second rejection. Social workers are also concerned that they will increasingly be seen as ‘child snatchers’, and families that need help and support will not seek it out for fear of losing their children, which in turn may lead to more children suffering abuse and neglect, a truly unintended consequence of the desire to increase numbers of successful adoptions.
There is one further note of caution to be considered, Judges have become increasingly concerned about the standard of analyses and paperwork presented by Local Authorities when putting the case forward for adoption (Re B –S (Children)  EWCA Civ 1146).
This is an area of law where there is clearly competing and policy driven outcomes. On the one hand, the state has a need to protect and enhance the life of children at risk, but on the other hand the rush to adoption may have the opposite effect in some cases highlighted by the increase in recognition of attachment disorder and the need for post-adoption support for children and families.
While this area of law is always going to be fraught with complex competing rights and policy drivers, Javed Khan the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, in response to David Cameron’s statement summed up the key factor that needs to be at the forefront of all law and policy, “…this is not a numbers game, and all decision’s to place children for adoption must be made in the best interests of children…”