Q & A: Adoption

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Prime Minister David Cameron has made it a government priority to increase the number and speed of adoptions in England. The BBC News website looks at some of the facts and issues involved.

How many children are in care?

Last year, there were more than 65,000 children in care in England. The number has risen significantly in the past few years, particularly since the death of Peter Connelly, known as Baby P, when social workers were criticised for not taking him out of danger and in to care.

However, not all of these 65,000 children are available or likely to be adopted. Many pass in and out of the care system, as efforts are made to keep families together. Some may be being cared for by relatives such as their grandparents, or be teenagers, for whom adoption is not necessarily seen as the best option.

How many are available for adoption?

The government says last year there were roughly 6,800 children who had been identified for adoption but had not been adopted.

How many children are adopted in the UK each year?

The latest figures available - for the year to March 2011 - show that just over 3,000 children were adopted in England last year. That number has been falling in recent years, while the number in care has been rising.

Adoption is a devolved issue - where rules are not set by Westminster - and other parts of the UK have their own policies and ways of collecting data. Adoption data is not directly comparable, but the latest figures, collected by the charity Adoption UK, are:

Children in care: Wales - 5,165 on 31 March 2010; Northern Ireland - 2,606 at the end of March 2010; Scotland - 15,288 at the end of March 2009.

Adoptions of children in care: Wales - 230 in the year to March 2010; Northern Ireland - 64 in year to March 2008; Scotland - 455 in year to March 2009.

What does the government want to do?

It wants to speed up the adoption process and for more children to be adopted. It says it wants to break down the barriers to people adopting and cut the bureaucracy involved. At the moment, children wait an average of one year and nine months before being adopted.

What changes is it bringing in?

Under its "action plan for adoption" it is bringing in what it calls a "score card" for local authorities which will show:

  • The average time it takes for a child to be moved in with an adoptive family
  • The proportion of children waiting longer than they should - including those still in care
  • The average time it takes an authority to match a child with a family after a court has decided that he or she should be adopted.

It also wants to tackle the supply side - the pool of people approved to adopt - and the steps they have to go through.

It is going to consult on a having a new "six month approval process" for people wanting to adopt.

It has issued new guidance covering ethnic matching - so that children are not left in care for years because social workers cannot find "a perfect match".

And it has urged Ofsted to give "outstanding" ratings for adoption only where children are placed within 12 months of being identified for adoption.

Also, the government says:

• Legal changes are planned to make it easier for children to be fostered by people approved for adoption so that a child might be fostered by someone who goes on to adopt them once court proceedings are complete

• If an adoptive match is not found locally in three months, local authorities will have to put the child on the national adoption register so that they may be found parents from a larger pool of people.

What is the issue with inter-ethnic adoptions?

Fewer people from ethnic minorities come forward to adopt children so there is a shortage, particularly among the black community. There is less of a shortage among Asian groups. Social workers have put a high importance on placing children with adoptive parents of a similar ethnic background if possible, believing that a mismatch can lead to problems to do with cultural identity. The government says black children wait three times as long as white children to be adopted and are less likely to find adoptive parents.

What else delays adoptions?

The legal processes necessary take a long time. In the past, most children being adopted had been given up by their parents, especially when there was a social stigma attached to children being born to unmarried women.

These days, experts say most children being adopted are being taken from their parents by the authorities because they do not think they can look after them. The parents have the right to legal representation and to challenge the decisions in the family courts.

Some experts say even in the most straightforward cases, it can be a year before proceedings are complete - although some say it can be done in six months.

How many adoptions break down?

The government does not collect data on this but research suggests as many as one in five break down. Data suggests that adoptions of younger children are more likely to be successful. Experts believe that the longer children have been in care, the harder it is to find them a permanent home.

Is adoption always best?

In some countries there is much less emphasis on formal legal adoption. Here, some in local government point out that in some cases, especially those of teenagers, adoption is not appropriate. Social workers might seek instead to place a child with a relative, such as a grandparent, without an adoption.

Are any other changes planned?

Yes, in a ministerial statement released by the Education Secretary Michael Gove on 14 March, he said these changes were the most urgent needed, but that further proposals would be set out in the summer "on other changes to the adoption system and wider reform to services for children in care".

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