Adoption rates in the UK are falling and, sadly, it is estimated that 3% of adoptions in the UK break down, with the child being returned to the care system. For those seeking to adopt, the process can be both complex and daunting. A new cross-party report ("Strengthening Families" by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adoption and Permanence) ("the report") calls for significant reforms to the adoption system and a shift in focus away from family finding and towards family building.
Adoption confers legal parenthood from a child's birth parents to the adoptive parents. The transfer of legal parenthood extinguishes all legal links between the child and birth parents. Due to the importance of the rights and responsibilities attached to legal parenthood, the adoption process is both rigorous and onerous. Prospective parents must complete a series of background checks and training sessions as well as interviews with a social worker. Further, the social worker will need to speak with family and friends to gain an understanding of their lifestyle.
Matching parents and children
If prospective parents pass the initial stage, the matching phase will then begin, where an adoption agency will seek to match prospective parents with a suitable child. The report emphasises the importance of getting the matching phase right. In particular, it highlights the need for recognition of and alertness towards a child's physical, emotional, social, mental and developmental needs. Increased training and education of both social workers and prospective parents at the start of their journey will play a role in this. Early recognition of a child's needs and the ability to successfully pair the child with parents who can provide for these needs is key.
The success of early recognition of a child's needs is likely to be dependent upon two factors - firstly, the resources available to local authorities to sufficiently train social workers to conduct thorough and proper multi-disciplinary assessments of the children. Secondly, the ability of prospective parents to raise queries or concerns about a child's needs without fear of being pushed out of the adoption system. Some parents who have been through the process have raised complaints that they felt unable to speak out or ask difficult questions due to fear of having their application rejected.
The report also focuses on ethnic minority children and highlights the need for a culturally literate approach to adoption. There is a stark disparity in experiences of white children and ethnic minority children who have been through the adoption system. On average, children from ethnic minority groups wait 22 months to be adopted, while white children wait 19 months. Black children wait the longest to be adopted and are the least likely ethnic group to be adopted at all.
The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child states that a child's ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background should be considered when matching a child with adoptive parents. The UN believes that it is desirable for these factors to be continuous in a child's life. However, this requirement was removed in England by the UK Government. It feared the requirement was causing delay in the matching process resulting in fewer ethnic minority adoptions. The report recommends that adoption panels should be racially diverse to ensure that cultural factors are properly considered during the matching phase. It also states that local authorities need to develop individual strategies to ensure that ethnic minority children are not subject to longer waiting times.
Once a child and family have been matched, the child will be placed with the family for a trial period of ten weeks. If successful, an adoption order can then be applied for. The order is permanent and transfers legal parentage. At present, this is often seen as the final stage of the adoption journey.
The report criticises this perspective and emphasises the need for continued support beyond the adoption order. While an adoption order may provide legal permanence, it is critical that adopted children feel emotional and psychological permanence with their adoptive families.
One proposal to achieve emotional and psychological permanence is for adopted children to maintain relationships with key adults from previous stages of their life. Who these adults are will vary on a case-by-case basis, however they could include the birth-parents, family members of the birth-parents, social workers and previous foster carers. The report highlights that it is sometimes difficult for children to say goodbye to foster parents when moving to their adoptive home. Children do not always understand the need for the move if they were happy with their foster parents. If the proposals are implemented, they will require adoptive parents to collaboratively work with key people in a child's life and will hopefully allow the child to have a greater understanding of their history and identity.
A further proposal relates to extending the Adoption Support Fund (ASF). The ASF provides funds to local authorities and adoption agencies to pay for essential support post-adoption. It was initially set up to provide financial support to adoptive families as an interim measure whilst local authorities improved their post-adoption support services. Whether extending the ASF is symbolic of a delay between the availability of services provided by local authorities and the needs of adoptive families remains in question. When an adoptive family or child is in urgent need of specialist support, they may feel more supported by continued contact with a familiar social worker who can signpost additional services, rather than the increased bureaucracy and potential delay in accessing a support fund.
Every adoption story is different and comes with its own unique set of complexities. These are only a few of the numerous proposals made in the report. The recognition of the need for long-term support beyond the adoption order is a positive shift in thinking. Whether these proposals go far enough remains to be seen.
If you would like to find out more about adoption, please contact a member of our Surrogacy and Modern Families Team.