Education & Family

Adoptive parent checks: Overhaul planned in England

Image caption Ministers say there should be a "common-sense approach"

The government is to overhaul the way people in England are checked to see if they are suitable to adopt children.

It has set up a new panel which will work with its adoption adviser, Martin Narey, to draw up plans.

Ministers say the process is "painfully slow" and that many are put off, while others are turned away unnecessarily for being overweight or ex-smokers.

Adoption experts say the system needs improving but checks must be robust so that vulnerable children are protected.

Detailed assessment can ensure the best match for a child and lessen the chances of an adoption breaking down they say.

The charity Adoption UK says research suggests about one in five adoptions breaks down and that even more families struggle to cope.

The government has pledged to speed up the adoption system and says it wants more children adopted.

It says children wait an average of two years and seven months to be adopted, while it can take a year for a couple or individual to be approved to adopt.

'Common-sense approach'

Earlier this year ministers highlighted figures which showed that of the 3,660 children under the age of one who were in care in England last year, only 60 were adopted.

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Media captionAdoptive parent Elizabeth Hitchcock: "Even with a great amount of optimism, I didn't think we could go through it again"

Children's Minister Tim Loughton said: "The assessment process for people wanting to adopt is painfully slow, repetitive and ineffective. Dedicated social workers are spending too long filling out forms instead of making sound, common-sense judgements about someone's suitability to adopt.

"Children are waiting too long because we are losing many potentially suitable adoptive parents to a system which doesn't welcome them and often turns them away at the door."

The new panel will include representatives from the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, the Association of Directors of Children's Services, Adoption UK and the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies.

They have been asked to suggest ways to improve the way would-be adoptive parents are recruited, assessed and trained and to "remove bureaucracy and overprescription" in information collected about them.

A report on would-be adopters can run to more than 100 pages.

'Postcode lottery'

Adoption UK's chief executive Jonathan Pearce told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that about one in three potential adoptive parents were being lost from the system.

"They can find it very hard to get through the front doors of the adoption agency, and they may be turned back a number of times - they may be told that they're not the right profile for the children in care," he said.

"Potentially we're losing too many people from the adoption system who could be offering permanent, stable, loving homes to abused and neglected children from the care system."

Mr Pearce described a "postcode lottery", with local authorities performing better and worse on different aspects of adoption.

The panel will also set out timescales for checking people's suitability and training them, and suggest new ways of monitoring the success of the adoption system.

In October, the government published figures which showed wide variations in how many children had been adopted in England's local authorities.

Government adviser Martin Narey said the assessment process was the "the biggest cause of delays" in adoptions and the reason so many children were being left in care.

"I have met couples who have adopted children from China and Nicaragua, but they all wanted to adopt a child from care here," he said.

"The parental assessment process is not fit for purpose. It meanders along, it is failing to keep pace with the number of children cleared for adoption, and it drives many outstanding couples to adopt from abroad."

Local councils agree that the existing system for assessing would-be parents is slow and bureaucratic - but say it is vital that it remains as rigorous as possible - because the children involved are among the most vulnerable in society and a breakdown in an adoption could be catastrophic for them.

Detailed checks can reduce the risk of such breakdowns, they say.

And they say many adoptions are held up in the family courts, where final decisions about adoptions are taken.

Adoption for life

British Association of Social Workers chief executive Hilton Dawson told the BBC it was "essential that the adoption process remains as rigorous as possible".

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Media captionChildren's Minister Tim Loughton: "In too many cases [people] are given the 'don't call us, we'll call you' treatment"

He said: "I don't think that the government should emphasise speed over the quality of assessment. Adoption is for life, this isn't something that people should enter into lightly."

But Mr Narey told the Today programme the system could be both shortened and made more rigorous and there was "absolutely no question of relaxing the system".

The chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, David Holmes, told the BBC News Channel there needed to be a balance between welcoming potential adopters and ensuring that the adoption system remained robust.

"The idea is to try to identify the children who need adoption as quickly as possible, and then to make sure that there is a supply of adopters ready and waiting to adopt those children," he said.

Matt Dunkley, the president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said: "Local authorities... recognise that adoption offers the best chance of stability for a lot of children.

"The current process is cumbersome and does not leave room for social workers to use their professional judgement to make decisions in the best interests of children."

The association has pointed out that basic adoption figures do not reflect other "permanent placements" - such as when a child is being looked after by their grandparents.

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