Is the drive to get children out of state care and into adoptive families having an impact on decision making in care proceedings?

This is a collective post by the Transparency Project


Adoption Targets?

The debate about the merits or otherwise of adoption following a final care order is often overshadowed by the spectre of ‘adoption targets’. The notion of such targets originates with Tony Blair. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 1997, he was horrified by the length of time children remained in state care after being removed from their birth families. He wanted local authorities to speed up finding a permanent home for these children

As Claire Fenton Glynn describes it:

The Prime Minister’s Review of Adoption in 2000 put forward the belief that the system was not delivering the best for children, as decisions about how to provide a secure, stable and permanent family were not addressed early enough. As such, it advocated an increase in the use of adoption to provide children with permanency at an earlier stage… Following on from this, the government produced a White Paper entitled Adoption: A New Approach, which outlined the government’s plan to promote the wider use of adoption for looked after children, establishing the target of increasing adoption by 40-50 per cent by 2004-2005… It was in this context that the Adoption and Children Act 2002 was introduced, with the explicit aim of promoting the greater use of adoption.

Few could sensibly disagree with the argument that once a decision is made that a child should be adopted, the child should not have to wait years to find a permanent home. However, ‘adoption targets’ have taken on a more sinister meaning over the years.

The more extreme voices in the debate assert that individual social workers are paid cash bonuses to find cute and readily ‘adoptable’ babies to take from loving families in order to push up their ‘adoption stats’. (We have not been able to find any evidence to support that assertion). This comment from ‘Winston Smith’ on the Child Protection Resource site, is typical:

Forced Adoption is a Racket in the American sense and Trafficking and Trafficking in children. This is because it exists to meet the needs of the powerful adoption industry and supply couples with children to adopt. This is because it originated when adoption was being promoted as the thing to do , but there were no children available for adoption. The idea was this could be met by adopting from Care.
Inevitably the most attractive – blond hair, blue eyes and babies or younger kids are the most attractive goods to meet the demands of the market.
So if such kids found themselves in Care for silly reasons they now would be classified as suitable for adoption.

Some of the more prominent critics of the family justice system, such as the former MP John Hemming, no longer appear to frame the debate in terms of social workers getting bonus payments for starting care proceedings to remove children from their families. Instead, they assert that Blair’s ‘adoption targets’ have proved to be an example of the law of unintended consequences. Once care proceedings are being considered or are underway, this ‘push’ for adoption is distorting the decision making of individual practitioners about what is the best thing for each individual child. The well meaning targets to get children out of long term state care (where outcomes are often dire) have a ‘trickle down’ effect on the initial care proceedings themselves.

Thus, it is argued, children who find themselves in the care system and who once might have gone home with family intervention and support, will now find themselves subject to a final care plan for adoption – or a Special Guardianship order.

Decisions about a child’s future should only ever be made with the welfare of that particular child at the forefront of the decision maker’s mind; that is the law. Part of analysing what is in a child’s best interest is giving due prominence to the importance of their links to their birth family; this is also the law. Any practice or policy that impedes, clouds or overtakes this necessary analysis should be a matter of concern for us all.

So what is the truth behind this assertion that adoption targets are distorting decision making overall?

John Hemming’s assertion : Merton has targets to remove children from birth families

We will look in this post at a particular example given by John Hemming involving the London Borough of Merton. He has produced a detailed document headed ‘Package of Adoption targets and statistics for Merton 2010-11, 2014-15′

This document asserts that:

Local Authorities operate a system of performance management with performance indicators and quantitative targets. These targets are analysed by the department and then a summary record is produced for the local authority as a whole

The document then sets out a short table for the years 2009-2015 using the columns ‘Financial Year’, ‘Adoptions’, SGO, ‘Total’, ‘Target’ and ‘Code’. We can see that for the financial year 2008-9 the total number of adoptions and SGOs were 10 against a target of 7. In 2014-15 the total number of adoptions and SGOs were 16, against a target of 13.

John Hemming asserts that this document is proof that:

…Merton has targets for removing children permanently from their birth families and as a result of these targets they have been removing more and more children permanently from their families. –

There is no identified source for the figures on this first page of the document supplied by Mr Hemming. We need to know who wrote this document, to understand why it was prepared and where these figures came from. Further, only in the first year is there any distinction made between ‘Adoption’ and ‘SGO’, being 5 of each. For every subsequent year there is simply a total number of adoptions and SGOs given. This is curious given the important distinction between the two orders; one severs completely the child’s ties to his or her birth family, the other preserves them.

It would be useful to have clarity about these issues; we hope Mr Hemming can supply it.

It appears from Merton’s published Performance Management data that Mr Hemming does correctly identify that Merton have as one of their KPIs: “Number of Special Guardianship Orders or adoptions finalised within the financial year” and that the information he provides is accurate, albeit the proportions of adoptions versus SGOs is not clear.

The statistical returns made to the Department for Education “SFR36” show that in year end March 2014 (the most recent year available) 10 of 15 placements falling under this KPI were adoptive, and one can infer that the remaining 5 were SGOs. For the previous year the returns do not show any breakdown of the 8 children shown in the Hemming data to have been either adopted or made the subject of SGOs, apparently to protect confidentiality (this often happens when absolute numbers are low). For year end March 2012, it appears that all 12 children were adopted, none subject to SGOs.

It is worth noting here that SGOs and adoption are in many ways very different scenarios. However, there are common features of both, when contrasted with options such as foster care or rehabilitation:
• the child is placed away from his parents,
• There is no or very limited prospect of a return to parents in the future,
• The LA will be expected to remain involved for a finite period of time.


Key Performance Indicators – what are they, and what impact are they having?

Before looking at the Merton data in more detail, we shall first consider Key Performance Indicators in general (KPI). This is another way of saying ‘target’.

A performance indicator or key performance indicator (KPI) is a type of performance measurement. KPIs evaluate the success of an organization or of a particular activity in which it engages. Often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some levels of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.), and sometimes success is defined in terms of making progress toward strategic goals. Accordingly, choosing the right KPIs relies upon a good understanding of what is important to the organization.

The KPIs of various local authorities are informed by the data they collect, for example to determine:

• Average age of child when placed for adoption
• Time from issue of care proceedings to child being placed with adopters
• Time from placement order to child being placed
• Time from issue of care proceedings to adoption order being made
• Average time that a child has been subject to a placement order

It is accepted that there is a general ‘push’ from government in favour of adoption for children in care. All local authorities in England are now obliged to measure their adoption statistics which then result in a ‘League Table’; the local authorities who have the highest proportions of adoptions from their proceedings go at the top. For further information, see the government’s guidance about ‘adoption scorecards’. 


The Dark Side of KPIs and League Tables

KPIs can be used to rank local authorities on a variety of ‘league tables’. It is not controversial to recognise that competing for ‘ranking’ can have a negative effect on organisational priorities. An effective KPI should have a ‘limited dark side’ i.e. they should be tested to ensure they have a positive impact on performance. A poorly thought through KPI or over reliance on ‘league table’ positions can lead to dysfunctional behaviour within the organisation.

As Paul M comments:

League tables are like “sort” on a spreadsheet. Who comes top depends entirely on which column/criterion you sort. Time, money, parental satisfaction (if any) etc. Ditto for schools, hospitals etc etc. Then all organisations try to game the system to warp the sort. It’s all rather baleful in my view.


What is the general impact of the ‘push’ for adoption?

Anecdotal evidence, through discussions between members of the Transparency Project and individual social workers, suggests that the focus on adoption is having an impact; for example, social workers report that the matching process is being speeded up and there are some concerns that the search for potential families is becoming less extensive. Adoptive families are also being encouraged to make applications to adopt as soon as possible, whereas some families need to delay this application whilst ensuring they will get support from the local authority for the placement. Conversely, some feel that the courts are now acting to encourage delay by letting parents challenge adoption orders more readily post re B-S.


Specifics: A close look at the Merton data – is the ‘push’ for adoption having an impact on decision making at an early stage?

Is there evidence to support the assertion by John Hemming that that Merton’s KPI is having a distorting impact on their decisions about how to safeguard children, thus leading to children being removed and kept from birth families simply to meet ‘targets’ ?

Starting point – how many care proceedings in Merton?

A good starting point is to examine how many care proceedings are initiated by Merton, compared to other local authorities. If Merton do have targets to remove children from birth families, one would expect their rate of care proceedings to be higher than other comparable authorities. Andrew P had a look at the statistics.

These show that for 2015, care proceedings per 10,000 of the population, Merton has the lowest rate of any London Borough at 3.1 children per 10,000, Many others have rates of 6.5, and some like Islington are as high as 18.7. There is worrying evidence of a North/South divide – for example, Blackpool’s figure is 28 children per 10,000. This is the highest rate in England, based on the most recent figures.

Looking at the last six years, Merton are always one of the lowest in terms of care proceedings taken per 10,000 children. In 2008 after the death of Peter Connelly, everyone’s numbers went up as the number of care proceedings issued nationally increased by about 50%. But even then Merton were not in the top half of local authorities for issuing care proceedings. Across the whole country (with the exception of the Isles of Scilly, which have never issued any care proceedings) Merton is the second lowest in the country.

Even if you just go by raw numbers, ignoring relative size of each Local Authority, Merton’s numbers are amongst the lowest in the country in terms of issuing proceedings, and they haven’t shown much increase over a 5 year period.

Andrew P concludes by commenting:

So, IF there are secret Merton targets telling them to issue more care proceedings, they seem to be having a remarkably weird effect, in that they are doing the exact opposite of what you’d expect.
If you were a parent suspecting that your next baby MIGHT be the subject of care proceedings, Merton would be a damn good place to go and live, especially if you currently live in Blackpool (who’d be TEN times as likely to issue as Merton) or Islington (who’d be SIX times as likely to issue as Merton).

Document produced by John Hemming

The target was set for Merton to achieve 12 finalised SGO or adoption orders in 2012-13. We can see from the document supplied that they were only achieving 8, for which they had a red mark – indicating failure. This had increased to a target of 13 in 2014-15 which led to 16 achieved, for which they have green mark – indicating success.

This appears to show that Merton had set themselves a target to achieve 12 SGOs or adoptions in that year but had only managed 8, and were being internally criticised for being below their target. It is reasonable to assume from this that Merton wanted more children adopted or subject to SGO per year than was actually happening. What we have not been able to analyse is how many children were in the system at any given point and therefore whether the proportion of children subject to adoption / SGO in Merton is static or fluctuating.

The document asserts:

It should be noted that the target number of adoptions for Merton was around 8 per year prior to receipt of the ministerial letter requesting that ‘everything possible’ be done to increase the number of adoptions. This was initially changed to 12 children per year and is now 13

Mr Hemming’s document appears to be saying that for 2014-5, before even looking at the issues in each individual case, of those children who are subject to care proceedings, 13 should NOT go home (remember the common features of SGOs and adoption – this target is satisfied by either SGO or adoption). This is a clear indication of a target that impacts on decision-making. If it does not have an impact, why have it?

As Andrew P comments:

Also, from the care demand stats, Merton are taking about 20-25 sets of care proceedings a year. The KPI asks for currently 13 SGOs or adoption orders per year. It is difficult to know how many children are within those 20-25 sets of care proceedings, but let’s say an average of 2 per case (some will be much higher with families of 5 or 6, but some will be babies and just 1).So let’s say that out of 40-50 children in care proceedings per year, Merton’s KPI (target) is that 13 won’t be going home to mummy or daddy, but will either be SGOs or adopted.

Thus, where a KPI of 13 might be fairly meaningless in a Local Authority that deals with 200 children a year, it is instead rather significant at Merton’s levels.

It is clear from the statistics about the number of care proceedings initiated by Merton that this KPI has not led to an increase in that historically low number. But if Merton are expected to achieve a set number of adoptions/SGOs in each year, there is certainly a fear that this target may have a negative impact on the integrity of decision making for children who are subject to care proceedings.

Further information

Merton publishes information about its mission statement and its performance. It’s mission statement is entirely appropriate:

We have a long standing approach to preventing children becoming looked after. When children do need to come into care we seek to ensure that care proceedings are timely and our care plans appropriately safeguard children and support decisions around permanency which are in the best interests of each child

Nor could anyone sensibly argue with their ‘Strategic Priorities’, the first being ‘to improve the timeliness of care proceedings’ and the 7th being ‘achieving permanency’.

Also of note in the strategic plan are the following :

We will remain committed to considering all options of permanency for all our children requiring a placement outside of their own family; this includes for those with the most complex needs, regardless of the impact on our performance scorecard (our emphasis)


We will continue to improve the timeliness of good quality matches for children for
whom permanency is the plan (page 26).

With regard to its performance, the relevant data can be found here.

Looking at the 2014/5 performance ‘dashboard’ as set out in that link, Merton have set out their ‘End of Year Performance 2014-5 for Children Schools and Families’ as CRP065SP095MP012 Number of special guardianship orders and adoptions finalised during the year ending 31 March which gives a ‘target’ of 13 and a ‘value’ of 16.

Lucy R has attempted to analyse that published information and comments:

I think it is possible that the number of adoptions to be achieved in the following year is set according to how many children are subject to a plan for adoption at the point when targets are set. I can’t quite get my head around the number of months [set out in] the bar chart [at page 47 – see below] – I think it indicates they are looking at the pace of achieving adoption once it has been settled upon as the plan, which would be less controversial. [edit 10.40am 25/9/15 : bar chart added – omitted in error. LR]


Bar Chart from Merton Performance Stats for y/e Mar 2015

It is also possible that Merton have had a specific push on placing “hard to place” children who are already the subject of placement orders, for example those who are older or have SEN. See page 26 Strategic plan which promises :

We will continue to work closely with the South West London Adoption Consortium
(SWLAC) to ensure that we are pooling resources and subsequently securing best
We will maintain an effective publicity campaign to ensure that we are targeting carers who are prepared and able to meet the complex needs of the children for whom adoption is the plan…
We will improve permanency planning for children aged 6+…

We emailed an earlier draft of this post to Merton on 14th September 2015 and made the following comments:

We’d really like to make sure we get the position correct and hear what you have to say about this issue, which we think is important. We’ve had a look at published information on your website, for example

The latter of these documents describes itself as a draft – it would be really useful to see the final version of this document. We are particularly interested in the wording / meaning of the KPI “Children in care adopted or receiving a Special Guardianship Order” which doesn’t seem, as worded in the draft, to be about timescales but about absolute numbers of adoptions achieved. We don’t want to misunderstand this so would welcome your explanation before we publish our article.

Would you be able to send the final KPI document to us or direct us to where we can find it on your site please? It would also help us to understand the initials that set out who is reported to in respect of these KPIs (what level of management).

In your Children & Young People’s plan there is reference to an adoption action plan but it is not published. Would you be able to send that to us also (or direct us to the relevant link)?

We’d really like to understands how Merton implements its KPIs – are the KPIs a criteria considered when individual frontline social workers or manager are appraised?

We’d also like to understand who is responsible within your authority for setting and monitoring these targets?

At the time of writing (Sep 24th) we have had no response from Merton. We accept that the Merton data as presented by John Hemming needs clarification and we hope Merton will respond to our request for more information.

Their KPI as presented by John Hemming, does appear to muddy the waters about whether this local authority has a target to ‘take more children away from parents’ (as Mr Hemming would assert) or instead is a wholly legitimate target to speed up the process by which placement orders become finalised adoption or special guardianship orders.


Next Steps

We have made FOI requests to all other local authorities in England and Wales in order to investigate this issue further. We will publish a further post when we have had the opportunity to analyse the responses received.

We think it is very important to be able to understand what is really going on with regard to ‘targets’ in this area. It is clearly an issue that causes concern and disquiet for many.

Information needs to be easily available and presented clearly and simply, so we can all understand. The difficulty in understanding Merton’s position may be simply down to a problem in communication, which we accept can be difficult when dealing with such data and statistics. However it is unfortunate that the position is not clear, even after members of the Transparency Project have spent several hours of careful analysis of the published data – this is how mistrust is built and grows.

Severing all legal ties with a child’s birth family by way of adoption is rightly recognised as a very serious intervention by the State. We must all have confidence that when such a decision is made, it is made in the best interests of the child. No other reason is lawful or acceptable.

We are grateful to Mr Hemming for bringing this to our attention.