Delayed adoption is sure to damage a child“, writes Clare Foges for The Times (paywall). “Attempting to place children with family members has stalled the process to an alarming extent” says the subheader.

Here we go again.

For children who cannot stay with their birth families, adoption, and adoption at the earliest opportunity is a good thing. But we need to take care not to slip into simplifying that proposition into one which simply reads : Adoption is a GOOD THING.

Adoption is a means to an end (the welfare of the child). It is not an end in itself.

This article by Clare Foges, who writes compellingly and with experience of adoption and fostering within her family, begins by stating the former and ends by advocating the latter.

Foges sets out the potential harm cause by not removing a child soon enough and not securing a child in a permanent family. That is undisputable. She doesn’t however set out that in some adoptions the harm caused by becoming adopted, of not knowing or being part of the lives of the imperfect biological family, plays out in traumatic ways many years down the line, and that particularly for those children who suffered significant trauma before adoption all the love in the world cannot undo that harm. Adoption is no panacea.

Foges praises Michael Gove for the zeal with which he pursued and achieved a rise in adoption numbers. Not a reduction in adoption delay but a rise in absolute numbers of adoption:

The numbers adopted rose. Yet last week we saw for the second year in a row that adoptions in England have come down, despite the number of children in care increasing. The strides made by Gove have slowed to a limp. Why?

Why is the mere fact that adoption numbers have fallen a bad thing? Is it necessarily the case that the finding of alternative options for children is a BAD THING?

Lawyers reading this will know what comes next : this is all the fault of “a ruling in 2013” that stopped adoption zealots from achieving their goal of more adoption. That infamous ruling is the judgment of The Court of Appeal in Re B-S. Foges summarises Re B-S in this way :

Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, implied to councils that adoption orders should be made only when there were no alternative options, such as placing the child with relatives. In the years since, in a giant case of Chinese whispers, this ruling has been misinterpreted by social services departments. It was taken as a dictum that adoption is always a last resort, that wherever humanly possible a child should stay in the care of those it is related to. This “family first” approach may sound reasonable, but there are unfortunate consequences.

Sir James did not imply adoption orders should be made only when there were no alternative options. He said it in legal terms (as did the rest of the Court of Appeal). Because it is the law. The law that pre-existed this ruling and the law that continues to apply in this country. The law that is consistent with a child and her parents’ rights to family life, that Parliament has approved.

Foges complains that the upshot of this is that

If blood is decreed to be so much thicker than water then social workers will be even more reluctant to take a child into care. All manner of “support” must be thrown at a family to keep it together; even if the parents are known to be on drugs and the child is clearly neglected. Still, they might benefit from mentoring and the odd visit from a social worker. And so truly disastrous parents drink in the last chance saloon for years, their children increasingly damaged. As Sir Martin Narey, a former chief executive of Barnardo’s and government adviser on care has said, the system is “gripped by an unrealistic optimism about the capacity of deeply inadequate parents to change”.

However, social workers do not seem to be more reluctant to take a child into care since 2013 because the numbers of care cases have been rising significantly for some time and are higher than ever (although the last quarter shows something of a plateau) and the number of looked after children is also on the rise. This is an odd thing to miss, given that the article is pegged on the release of statistics showing a reduction in adoption numbers published earlier this week that also contains the care numbers. It’s even on the same page (the LAC numbers are separate and can be found here but have also been widely reported as up).

Foges appears to be somewhat disdainful of the idea of supporting and fixing families so that children do not have to be removed, or so that the next sibling, the next baby born 18 months down the line does not have to be removed.

She says that :

The other consequence of the “family first” approach is that once it is decided a child’s future lies apart from its parents, instead of pursuing the adoption route, social services will first try to shake out every second cousin twice removed, in case they might care for the child. Staying with a blood relative is the priority, regardless of whether they offer a more stable home than adopters-in-waiting. Assessing relatives adds months to proceedings. Often one will pop up at the last hour to say they are willing to take the child. All this can cause huge delays, extending the wait for permanence.

Foges overstates the extent of what she calls the “family first” approach. Whilst it is true to say that the law demands that a child’s relationship with his family should never be completely severed through adoption unless the circumstances are exceptional and there is no other realistic option, the law does not say that there is a presumption in favour of family once the threshold for state intervention has been crossed. Put in more simple terms, if the court considers that a child has suffered significant harm or is at risk of significant harm all options are open to the court – the search is for the option most consistent with the child’s welfare, subject only to the fact that the court must not interfere with family life if it isn’t necessary or if some lesser interference would still meet the child’s needs.

Another statistic that Foges has missed is the one showing that the average duration of care cases is now 28 weeks (also in the same statistical release she relies upon). That 28 weeks has been achieved because deadlines are set for the “shaking out” of all the cousins, and assessments of them are progressed concurrently with a plan for adoption so that a decision can be made as to which of the various options is best likely to meet a child’s long term holistic needs. Some would argue that the insistence on speed increases the risk that some children may be going to adoption when it may not be necessary because it is deemed “too late” for family members to be assessed or there isn’t time to allow a parent to demonstrate sufficient change. Some would argue that the well intentioned rush to a decision may mean some children are placed in unsafe or “wobbly” parental or kinship placements because of rushed assessments. Either way, those who wanted quicker adoption have got what they asked for – whilst the Family Court system undoubtedly needed to become more efficient and less sluggish, the quid pro quo for the ever increasing focus on the clock may be an increased risk of getting the wrong answer in some cases. It’s in that context that one should approach what Foges says about family placements.

The level of breakdown of kinship placements is a legitimate topic for debate. But Foges is bordering on social engineering when she says that :

There is another uncomfortable truth about family placements, which is that some families have bad news written right the way through them. “Man hands on misery to man”, as Larkin said, and the same can go for dysfunctional parenting.

With that attitude, why would one “waste” funds on supporting failing parents to improve themselves?

And, as we have seen so many times before, this proponent of adoption has segued into adoption as an end in itself – more adoption is a GOOD THING :

But the continuing fall in adoptions suggests the movement to keep families together at all costs has gone too far. The government urgently needs to restore balance to the system and get more children into stable, loving adoptive homes.

Those interested in an alternative approach to the issue of struggling families and child protection may care to listen to the piece by Sanchia Berg on Radio 4 Today this morning, which you can catch up on here and may wish to read the recent judgment of HHJ Wildblood QC in A Local Authority v The Mother & Anor [2017] EWFC B59 (13 September 2017) about the waste of resources and unnecessary repetition of human misery that is caused by our failure to support “failing” parents, along with the BBC coverage last week about the struggles that even adopted children have in their happily ever after homes.

Feature pic courtesy of Pelle Sten on flickr – thanks! (Creative Commons licence)