A huge variation in rates at which children are put up for adoption reveals a shocking postcode lottery across England, with children in one area at least a dozen times more likely to be put up for adoption than those in another.
Southampton, Blackpool and the area around Grimsby all saw more than 1 in 100 of all under-5 year olds, put up for adoption in the year ending March 2017, compared to places like Tower Hamlets and Trafford where 1 in 400 under 5s in care were adopted. The borough of Greenwich - which includes deprived areas - has a rate of 1 in nearly 700.
While there is no accepted rate for how often children should be put up for adoption, the dramatically different rates show a massive difference between councils.
The reasons behind the variations have been attributed to various issues. But many experts agree that different attitudes to risk across councils is a key contributor, with one expert explaining that the situation is “not to do with objective differences in the risk of harm or actual harm alleged, but more to do with the culture within that local authority department”. The Bureau found Southampton council, where 1 in 54 children under 5 have been put up for adoption, has "targets" for the number of children to be adopted. Last year this number was put at 65.
Now, we can reveal that the government is aware of these issues and has commissioned a deep-dive investigation into the ever-increasing pressures on family law. However, despite repeated Freedom of Information requests, the Cabinet Office, which has oversight of this report, has refused to release it.
Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck, a former social worker herself, has also asked the government to make it public. She told the Bureau: “Ultimately I believe this report will show that austerity is what is driving the rise of children in care, and that it is the cuts to preventative interventions that is having the impact. I think the government knows that.
“Either they can keep hiding these reports and burying their heads in the sand or they can do the right thing and say we shouldn’t have cut prevention funding or closed Sure Start centres.”
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The Cabinet Office defended its refusal to release the findings but failed to respond to questions about whether they are being used to develop new policies.
Academic Andy Bilson, professor of Social Work at the University of Central Lancashire collated information received via Freedom of Information requests from 85 local authorities across England. This data was then analysed by the Bureau. “It’s clear from the data that there are some local authorities with exceptionally high levels of removal from their parents,” Bilson said.
“We need a wider perspective, with more focus on prevention and support for families if we’re going to have an effective system that protects children rather than one that just removes kids from their parents,” he added.
The Bureau spoke to lawyers, academics and child services charities and found the reasons behind the variance in adoption rates are likely to be multifactorial but include: cuts to family support, the fact local councils write their own policy documents on when to consider adoption and variations in the way judges view cases.
The adoption of children in care can be a hugely emotive topic, leaving some birth parents fighting to get their children returned to them. The Bureau found one case in which a mother paid nearly £20,000 in legal costs in an appeal court fight to prevent the adoption of her young daughter. The child, who had severe allergies, had been taken into care after the mother administered two EpiPen injections unnecessarily. That case is due to be re-heard.
While adoption numbers in general have been dropping, the new data also shows a 20% increase in the rate of children under 5 years adopted or in care with a legal order waiting for adoption on their fifth birthday, in the year ending 31st March 2017, (compared to 2012).
The figures pertain to the number of children adopted while in care, rather than voluntary adoptions.
More widely, numbers of children in care across the country have been rising steadily over the last nine years, with the latest official figures showing record levels of children removed from their parents and falls in those leaving care. Experts told the Bureau that one reason behind the rise is the impact of cuts to early intervention and family support work which would help keep children with their families.
Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s family division has warned that the care system “is facing a clear and imminent crisis”. Later this week a major inquiry by the Family Rights Group will explore the drivers behind the huge rise in the number of children in care.
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Speaking in 2016 the then president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), Dave Hill, said if the variation in rates of removal between local authorities applied to heart disease or cancer care “we would all be marching to protest at the unfairness of the system”.
While every adoption case is different, Hill warned that it was a case of local culture in care work that was creating such an imbalance in the likelihood of a child being adopted. “The fact is, the rates are driven by variable practice, not by risk factors, and that cannot continue,” Hill said then.
While the outline of when and why children could be considered for adoption is outlined in the Adoption and Children's Act, local authorities are responsible for interpreting that into their own local policies. Experts told us that while those are all within the law, there are subtleties in their interpretation.
MP Emma Lewell-Buck told the Bureau there needed to be high-level debate about the adoption rate figures saying, “with these wide variations it looks like different thresholds are being applied in different areas.”
“It needs to be looked at, because right now it suggests there are areas adopting out children when they don’t need to be.”
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Children has been holding an inquiry into the causes of different threshold levels for accessing children’s social care services. The inquiry will release its results in early July. APPG Chair and MP Tim Loughton told the Bureau how he had been hearing evidence “suggesting there were wildly different approaches to taking children into care from place to place, and these variations applied in other areas too, including early intervention services and identification of ‘children in need’.”
“The idea that children with similar challenges can expect different support simply on the basis of where they live, prompted the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children to launch a second inquiry into the reasons behind the different thresholds for accessing children’s social care that exist from place to place,” he said. The findings of that report will be published next month.
Another reason suggested for the rise in local authority adoptions is that care workers may be reacting to cases that have gone wrong. Some warn that could lead social services to react more dramatically to new cases.
Southampton, which tops the table for the most children under the age of 5 put up for adoption in the cohort studied, has seen a spate of highly-publicised child deaths in recent years, including the charging of a 16 year old boy in February with murdering his six-week old son. The baby boy suffered head injuries and a bite to the nose.
During the period of the study Southampton’s child protection team also missed the neglect of two young sisters whose case was described as “grotesque” in court.
In December 2016 the Southampton Echo reported union warnings that a “toxic climate of savage budget cuts, crippling poverty and the haunting legacy of the deaths of four vulnerable youngsters” was behind the soaring numbers of children are being taken into care by the city council.
The Bureau has also found that Southampton has been attempting to reduce numbers of children in its care. One way of doing this has been an attempt to reduce numbers of “looked after” children by increasing numbers and speed of adoptions.
Council paperwork shows it set itself a target of 65 adoptions for the current financial year and by the end of November 2017 had already achieved 61, with 20 taking place in a single month.
Despite the word “target” being used in their own documents, the council rejected the idea that this figure was a target, saying: “As part of our planning process, we hold a forecast of those children who are likely to be adopted. This forms part of our contingency arrangements, bearing in mind the awareness we hold of those children and their family circumstances subject to care proceedings.”
Responding to the figures Southampton council said: “All those adopted in the year were subject to rigorous scrutiny by the legal system and the Family Court, both of which agreed with the Local Authority that not only had the threshold for a Care Order been met, but that the Local Authority had exhausted all opportunity and support for any potential family or other carers: adoption was therefore the only realistic option”.
The council also noted the prevalence of abuse and neglect in the area as being a factor in the number of children on protection plans.
Stuart Gallimore, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, told the Bureau: “There is no single reason why rates of children coming into care and being adopted vary across the country… factors at play include differences in courts, society’s tolerance for risk driving risk averse practice and the varying needs and circumstances of a child”.
“Local authorities are committed to keeping children with the highest level of need safe, including by seeking court interventions where necessary. This is not a numbers game, behind these statistics are vulnerable children and young people and their welfare remains paramount in our work.”
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Poverty and cuts to services
Experts have long claimed that the impact of austerity cuts on the care system has been significant. Research shows that children in the poorest areas of the country were almost ten times more likely to go into care than those in the most affluent regions.
The Bureau has previously revealed the impact of cuts on council spending. An investigation into council draft budgets found more than 50% were planning to slash future spending by closing children centres, reducing transport for children with special educational needs and somehow reducing the number of children taken into care. Indeed, more than 300 children’s centres have closed between 2015 and November 2017, according to government figures.
Those cuts to services have created an environment where child services are stretched to their limits, with experts warning that cuts to early intervention and prevention work are leading to cases spiralling in seriousness, resulting in children being taken into care.
Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau told the Bureau: “There is a growing body of evidence that the cash crisis within councils is undermining services for children. There is variation not just in how councils interpret their legal duties to children at risk, but also in their ability to meet those duties. This includes both services for children in care and also the services which could prevent children from being taken into care in the first place.”
However, the variations in adoption rates cannot be blamed on deprivation alone. Academic Paul Bywater, who reviewed the new figures for the Bureau, said: “it seems to be more about local policy making and priorities. This all comes against a backdrop of a long series of political pressures for adoption,” he said.
Differences in practice between local family courts also play a part according to Martha Cover, child law specialist and joint head of Coram chambers: “Judges, as we all do, have personal norms about what is and is not acceptable parenting. They receive a lot of training on this but not all guard against their preconceived ideas and assumptions,” explained Cover. “Some judges are more likely to assume that the local authority has got it right,” she added.
Cover also said judges are very aware of the 26 week limit on how long care proceedings can continue, which was introduced as part of the Children’s and Families Act 2014. Missing that time limit is reflected in the court’s statistics which can mean officials are keen to rush cases through. This can mean opportunities to collect more expert opinions or develop evidence are missed.
Cover told the Bureau that the 26 weeks time limit has “led some social work managers to report that they assess as soon as possible when working with a family whether or not they can make threshold for a care order.
“The whole of care proceedings is far more process-driven. It is all about getting the case on the legal train as soon as possible, and the last stop on the line is a care plan of adoption. The legal tail is wagging the social work dog,” she added.
A Government spokesperson said: “Every decision regarding adoption is made with the best interests of the child at its heart. Many children and their adoptive families have had their lives transformed by adoption, and we are determined to support them every step of the way. On top of this, there are of course a number of alternative options available, including long-term fostering and special guardianship, which may be chosen when it is best for the child.
“To ensure adopters have the support they need, we introduced a tailored Adoption Support Fund, which to date has provided more than £75m to support thousands of children and families".
If you work in the sector or have insights into the rates at which young children are adopted, please contact Maeve McClenaghan: [email protected] Header stock photo by Shutterstock
About the data
FOIs were sent to all 152 English local authorities [with responsibility for adoption] and requested data on two cohorts of children. The 2012 cohort had their fifth birthday in the year ending 31/03/2012 and the 2017 cohort had their fifth birthday in the year ending 31/03/2017. These FOIs requested data on the number of children who had, before their fifth birthday, been involved with different parts of children’s services including adoption. The request also asked for the legal status of children who were looked after on 31/03/2012 and 31/03/2017 and this data is used as a proxy for children in care on their fifth birthday.