We published the results of a study on Adoption Targets on 17 November. A day later, the Association of Directors of Childrens’ Services (ADCS) responded with a press release (although we didn’t spot it at the time – it’s a shame that although we had called for dialogue they didn’t draw it to our attention).

The ADCS press release, which you can read here, says this :

“To say that these findings show that some councils are setting targets for the number of children who should be adopted from care and that this may in some way be a concern is an oversimplication of a much more nuanced and complex issue. Local authorities were challenged to increase the effectiveness of their adoption processes several years ago including increasing the number of adoptions as children were perceived to be waiting too long for adoptive parents or ending up missing the opportunity for adoption due to lengthy care proceedings. This led to individual authority responses based on their areas of strength and weakness, linked to the use of the adoption scorecard and Ofsted inspection of adoption within the SIF. Recent adoption reforms particularly those around reducing the time it takes for children to be adopted from care have meant that councils have a smaller timeframe within which to recruit, assess and approve adopters, plus a shorter time to match children once a plan for adoption is agreed. Greater expectations about achieving shorter timescales for care proceedings and clear plans for permanence for children have led to active planning around a range of possible outcomes for a child. Local authorities analyse the needs of children coming into care and track permanence planning outcomes including predictions of planned or potential adoptions. Based on plans either actual or twin track, some may well use target numbers as a good way of ensuring children do not drift. Some are likely to have set targets to increase adoptions if they have been challenged for the low number of adoption outcomes achieved. Irrespective of any targets in place the welfare of the child remains the paramount consideration during care proceedings and where adoption is not in the best interest of the child it will not be pursued. The ultimate safeguard is the court which will not agree to the removal of a child into care unless this can be evidenced to be right for the child and will not agree to adoption as a plan unless that is also believed to be right for the child.”

To say that some councils are setting targets or the number of children who should be adopted from care is not an oversimplification – it is a fact. It is what some councils told us they were doing.

To say that this is of “somehow of concern” is, we agree, an oversimplification. But that’ isn’t what we said. What we said was that some councils were using targets, but we didn’t really know whether that was working in a good way or a bad way. What we said was of concern was that we couldn’t get a clear answer and we couldn’t give a clear answer to worried members of the public. Like the ADCS we also said this was a complicated issue. Here are some of the things that we said in our blog post :

Even now, the information we have gathered and analysed over many (unpaid) hours raises perhaps more questions than answers. It is a matter of some concern to us that it was so difficult to get a simple answer to our questions about this important topic, and the lack of transparency on this issue cannot assist in the development and understanding of policy…

We are not able to draw firm conclusions from the evidence revealed by our FOI requests to say whether Mr Hemming’s fears are supported by evidence. But we are firmly of the view that this is a matter requiring further open, honest and transparent discussion. Even if there is only a perception that targets could be operating to influence decision making for children at a very early stage of proceedings, this could have a very serious impact on public trust and confidence in the system of child protection…

We agree that there is certainly a risk that ‘targets’ on this statistic could come to drive or contaminate decision making which becomes divorced from the needs of the individual child. Even if this is not happening in practice, it is still important that families are not given the impression that it could be happening. The perception is as harmful as the reality.

And in our press release we said :

We had anticipated that the answers to our information requests would lay to rest some of the anxiety that decisions about non-consensual adoption were being driven by targets rather than individual needs. Unfortunately our enquiries suggest the picture is more complicated. More work is needed because the picture remains unclear…

Whilst we have found no evidence that individual social workers are performance managed by reference to targets, and some councils specifically denied this, it is clear that some councils operate their own internal targets for broader management and performance purposes. Campaigners have highlighted the risk that targets of this sort could potentially have an indirect effect on decisions about whether or not an individual child should be placed for adoption, but our study did not produce evidence that helps to answer this question…

We did find evidence of one council’s adoption reform strategy extending to employing community nursery nurses in children’s centres to target permanency planning work with vulnerable babies and young children, which runs the risk of being perceived as an effort to seek out adoptable babies.

We also provided some further clarification of what the study did and did not tell us, in an interview for Community Care : Councils setting numerical targets for adoption. In hindsight, we can see that the interviewer had the ADCS press release in mind when asking us questions. As pointed out by the ADCS, we acknowledge that the court is the final arbiter of decisions for individual children – but to offer this as an answer to the questions we have been trying to engage with is to miss the point we were making about transparency and public confidence – with which the family justice and child protection system has yet to fully engage.

We have been at great pains not to draw unjustified conclusions from our limited study, and it is a shame that the ADCS press release oversimplifies our position and implies that we have.

Once again, we would call for a proper exploration and thoughtful public debate of these issues, with the gathering and presentation of evidence – rather than a knee-jerk defence of current practice based only on assertion. One of the questions that we think deserves some attention is :

 on what basis are we able to justify (to families and the public) use of actual targets as opposed to careful monitoring of future recruitment need, to up the numbers adopted (without having the same for all other forms of permanence) and as opposed to targets on all aspects of time/delay?  

[Update : The ADCS Press Officer has replied as follows :

Thank you for your email over the weekend and for making us aware of your blog post. The release on our website was a reactive comment in response to an enquiry from a Community Care journalist rather than something proactive – I’m not sure if this came across clearly in the title of the media release or the way we share our comments with our members on our website, everything gets labelled as a press release, so I am sorry about that. In our response we tried to make clear how complex and nuanced this issue was and why some local authorities may use numerical targets for adoption. We have now changed the title on the release to try and reflect the fact that this was a reactive comment to a media enquiry rather than a proactive response to the research.]

Feature pic courtesy of Jane Cockman (flickr) – thanks!