15 December 2020

Children are being condemned to a life in care by misguided adoption rules

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There’s no shortage of examples, but a strong contender for a Government programme with the worst outcomes must be the arrangements for children in care.

Around a quarter of prisoners were in care as children. It is estimated that children in care – or “looked after children” to use the official euphemism – are more likely to end up in prison than in university. 

This financial year local authorities planned to spend £4.6 billion on children in care – though it is reported that spending will go over budget. Last week figures were released showing that at the end of March 80,080 children were in care – the number is likely to have gone up since then. Council leaders I have spoken to suggest that the lockdown has prompted an increase in family breakdown and domestic violence, making it necessary to rescue more children from abuse and neglect. 

Anyway, the latest available figures mean the cost to the taxpayer equates to £57,442 a year per child in care. But that masks considerable variation in the costs of placements. Most children in care – 72% – are with foster carers, but 15% are in children’s homes or “other residential settings”. So that’s about 12,000 children in the latter group. Local authorities spent £1.4 billion on that in 2018/19, the latest year for which figures are available. So for those children, the annual cost is £116,667 per child. 

Should we envy them being the beneficiaries of such vast largesse from the taxpayer? We should not. At least the children with foster carers are in an environment resembling a family home. This is what the foster carers do their best to achieve. But that stability is often disrupted when children are taken back to their “birth mother” then returned to care in a new foster home after more abuse and neglect. Research from the charity Action for Children found that one in four foster children in the UK moves home two or more times a year. 

The law that the interests of the child are “paramount” is routinely flouted. Professor Elaine Farmer carried out a five year follow up study of 138 neglected children who had been returned to their families: she found 59% “had been abused/neglected after return”. 

Foster carers need special authorisation from social workers for such routine matters as hair cuts, holidays and sleepovers. That means a childhood punctuated by social worker visits and court appearances. “Contact time” with a relative – usually the birth mother is also mandated. A routine scenario would be that the mother is a heroin addict and doesn’t turn up for the appointment – or worse does and shouts and swears at her child. The social worker makes a note of this being “inappropriate”, but the legal requirement for such meetings is maintained. 

Those placed in children’s homes have it much worse. The grim series of scandals would take too long to recount here.

Yet this is not inevitable. Far more children should be placed for adoption and given the chance of a permanent loving home. I believe this would be viable for the great majority of children taken into care. It is absolutely necessary for children experiencing harm to be rescued from it – not returned to it. But they should not then face an entire childhood caught up in the care system. There should be a presumption in favour of adoption. 

Some challenge this on the grounds that the children have become so “difficult” due to the ordeals they have faced that adoption is not viable. There is something of the self-fulfilling prophecy in this. Obstruction and delay leading to years spent in care cause such harm that a child is deemed too far gone. Yet the breakdown rate for adoptions is very low. One study of 165 Romanian orphans adopted in the UK found only two breakdowns. 

The great majority of children in care are in mainstream schools – rather than being excluded and placed in “Pupil Referral Units” for being too disruptive. That is a good indication that adoption would be viable for them. 

There is a particularly pernicious barrier to adoption. It is the importance that social workers place on securing an “ethnic match”. 

Last week the Daily Telegraph reported findings from Adoption UK that “of the 3,570 children who were adopted in England up to March this year only 60 were Black or Black British.” The hostility to “transracial” placements means that black children are much less likely than white children to escape the care system and be nurtured, settled and cherished as part of a loving family. That policy is devastating for the life chances of those it is imposed on.

The ideology behind it is deeply entrenched in social work orthodoxy. It used to be called “political correctness” but is now described as being “woke.” The bitter irony is that it is genuine “institutional racism” and far more damaging than any other variety found in modern Britain. 

By no means do all social workers agree with the policy – as I know from conversations with them as a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham. But even those that favour adoption are thwarted by the courts. James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court, declared in 2014 that despite what the Government says, adoption is a “last resort”. 

The Conservative Manifesto a year ago promised: “We will prioritise stable, loving placements for those children – adoption where possible or foster parents recruited by the local authority.” Similar sentiments have been expressed for over a decade since David Cameron became Prime Minister. 

Indeed it goes back even further. Paul Boateng, a Minister in the Labour Government, declared in 1998 that the “misguided” objections to transracial adoption must end. “The importance of family life to a child cannot be overstated,” he said. “For too long adoption has been regarded as the last and least acceptable option.” New “guidance” would be “rigorously” implemented to end the practice of adoption being blocked because the applicants were “deemed the wrong colour”. 

Oh, yes. “Guidance”. The trouble is that it is still being ignored no matter how many new versions are issued. Something stronger is needed given the scale of the scandal: an end to discrimination and a strong legal presumption that the best interests for children in care means being placed for adoption. There also needs to be tough provisions against delay. That should certainly include making it illegal for there to be any delay at all on the grounds of the colour of a child’s skin.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.