Adoption: A vision for change?


This is a post by Sarah Phillimore

On 27th March 2016 – Easter Sunday – the Department of Education released its policy paper setting out its vision for improving adoption rates. Broadly, it sets out progress re adoption since 2010, current challenges and how they will be met and the government’s vision for the adoption system by 2020.

There are five chapters:

  • Chapter 1 Progress to date
  • Chapter 2 New and enduring challenges
  • Chapter 3 Creating the foundations for sustainable success
  • Chapter 4 Excellent practice everywhere
  • Chapter 5 Sharpening accountability to ensure delivery

In order to ‘achieve our vision’ the government will:

  • Act to address unexpected falls in adoption decisions
  • Deliver radical, whole system redesign by regionalising adoption services
  • Invest in developing the workforce
  • Reduce the time children wait to be adopted
  • Provide more high quality adoption support
  • Further embed strong performance management and accountability arrangements

No one could sensibly argue against much of what is said in this policy paper. Every child does indeed deserve a loving, stable family and for those children who cannot live with their birth parents it is vital to find them permanent new homes as quickly as possible. Adoption is clearly an important option  for those children who cannot live with their birth family, providing stability and care which can last long beyond childhood. It is good to hear that the Adoption Support Fund will be increased.


The Government is on a collision course with the law.

But my fear is that this is simply another piece of the adoption agenda which has been promoted by this government for some time now. This is dangerous. Promotion of an agenda is often at the expense of facts. This has clear potential for putting the government on a collision course with the law. This will be a time consuming, expensive distraction and the children will have to watch and wait on the sidelines as it plays out.

Agenda versus facts

The fact that the proportion of children adopted within 12 months has ‘almost doubled’ is offered up as ‘remarkable progress that should be celebrated’.  The recent decline in adoption numbers means ‘there is an urgent need to accelerate our reform of the adoption system now’. Thus, from the very outset, the policy paper is built on the assumption that more adoption and quicker adoption is an unqualified good which needs to be urgently achieved.

The foreword states that only 3.2% of children return to care ever year after an Adoption Order is granted, compared to 25% of children on a ‘residence order’.  This is from research by Selwyn and Masson in 2014. Thus adoption is offers the best chance for stability for children.

However, it is not clear to me from either the policy paper or the article which it cites (why not link to the actual research??) whether the disruption rates refer to adopted children subject to a care order after adoption or who are accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act (i.e. by agreement with the adoptive parents). Both are ‘looked after’ children but only those subject to care orders will have gone back to court. Thus this simple comparison between disruption rates in adoption and ‘residence orders’ is not helpful without clearly stating what is meant by ‘returning to care’.

Campaigning groups such as the Parents of Adopted Traumatised Teens tell a different story about adoption stability – of adopted children disappearing back into the system under section 20, of inadequate or non existent help and support, of social workers who do not understand issues of attachment and trauma.

It is clear that adoption can be transformative for many children. But it must be the right option for the right child at the right time. Good decisions need to be made about children as early as possible. The government’s vision is to ‘radically reform the children’s social care system’ and to structure reforms around three areas: people and leadership, practice and systems; governance and accountability. There is a need ‘to focus relentlessly on front line practice. We need all services to deliver high quality, evidence based decisions for children every time’.

All of this sounds great but misses the fundamental point. If your foundations are not sound, you can build as fancy a castle as you like; at the first strong wind it will fall. The message from front line social workers, time and time again is that they are overworked to the point of physical and mental breakdown.  Case loads are simply too high to permit proper evaluation, analysis and reflection.  This won’t change just because the government ministers are looking at it, however intently. Things change when you identify what is going wrong and take active steps to deal with it. 

What steps are proposed here to deal with the fact that it is impossible for a social worker who is asked to juggle an unmanageable case load, to deliver ‘high quality evidence based decisions for children every time’ ?

The government proposes:

  • to launch a new development programme to support social workers to achieve and demonstrate required knowledge and skills and have their specialist knowledge recognised;
  • publish a new Specialist Knowledge and Skills statement setting out exactly what social workers making permanence decisions need to know and be able to do.

This is a level of magical thinking that is simply embarrassing in a government document. You can set out as many statements as you like telling people what they should be doing, but if those on the ground who are supposed to be ‘doing’  are prevented from ‘doing’ by a harmful working environment then decisions about children will continue to be made in the absence of proper analysis.


The law versus the Government.

The government just doesn’t seem to understand the law and how it operates. That is clear to me when I look in more detail at these proposals for a programme to ‘sharpen up’ social workers, at para 3.34. The ‘robust programme’ they want to develop to support social workers to ‘develop or sharpen skills’ includes:

building skills to ensure that court material is well prepared and clearly argued and developing social workers’ skills in presenting and defending cases in court effectively.

It’s TOO LATE to do anything about the evidence once it gets to court. This is not simply shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but after its been sent to the knackers yard and turned into glue.

The Ministers seem to think that the local authority’s case unravels in court because it is challenged in court. However, a poorly prepared case has already collapsed by the time it gets to court; the court process simply shines a light on its demise. No matter how fancy the statement of skills expected of a social worker, silk purses are not generally made from sow’s ears.

However, the government just doesn’t seem to ‘get it’. The general view in this policy paper is that the judiciary share responsibility for the down turn in adoption orders after 2013 following the judgment of the President in Re B-S.  That is despite the very clear subsequent reiterations that Re B-S did not change the law. And indeed it did not. The trenchant criticisms of the President were not directed at the law, but the failure of social workers and lawyers to apply it properly and consistently.

The law around adoption has always been clear. Adoption represents the most serious interference the State can impose on family life; it removes the legal status of the birth family and makes the child a member of another.

Thus, a child can only lawfully be adopted when there is no other realistic option. This is the essence of ‘proportionality’ under Article 8 of the ECHR. Not only is adoption the ‘last resort’ but the State has a positive duty before considering adoption to keep the family together, by offering help and support where possible.  The European Court has issued a number of judgments making it very clear what is required by the positive obligations pursuant to Article 8 – see Soares de Melo and SH v Italy. 

For further consideration of the necessary legal principles, see the post ‘When can the court agree adoption is necessary’ ? [This post also deals with the implications for decisions about adoption of the 26 week timetable in care proceedings – see edit below]

What was going wrong was not that the law was unclear – but that the analysis of children’s circumstances and applying the law was often poor. I have discussed this  problem at length in this post – Achieving best evidence and use in Children Act cases. The fundamental point I make is that proper analysis and assessment takes not merely knowledge, expertise and experience but time.

The policy paper may well be right, I haven’t studied all the relevant research in sufficient detail to confidently assert one way or another. Maybe adoption is always the best option for most children and we should be making sure we have as many of them as possible as quickly as possible.

But there are few hurdles to jump in the meantime. Simply saying ‘full steam ahead’ for non consensual adoption, is not going to find favour with either domestic or European law. We cannot simply ignore the demands of Article 8 of the ECHR.  There are obvious and immediate tensions between the cry of ‘more adoptions more quickly’ and the positive obligation upon the State to support families to stay together.

How does the government seek to reconcile these tensions? We don’t know because they don’t say. A policy paper that simply discusses its vision for adoption in isolation of what the law demands,  is a useless distraction.

If the Government fights the law, the law will win – eventually. The Government’s only legitimacy is that afforded to it by law. It will not be able to resile from Article 8 without enormous effort. But the battle will be long and expensive. And again the children are the ones who will suffer.


EDIT – but this is all about children on placement orders – so what’s the problem?

There is a view expressed that the ‘push’ for adoption will not corrupt or obscure the decisions made about children at an early stage because the government is focusing on children already subject to placement orders. Therefore the proper decisions have already been made about their future with their birth families.

I used to agree with this. I don’t anymore. Particularly not now that care proceedings are limited by statute to 26 weeks. I think there is at least a very real risk that this ideological push for adoption is going to impact on decision making in care proceedings. Cases are going to be ‘rushed through’ with a particular end in mind.

This is a potential breach of Article 8. Fair enough, if that is what you want to achieve, if this is what you think is proportionate. But don’t pretend you are doing something else. Be honest about what you think is important – and be prepared to take the consequences.

For example, see this discussion on Twitter from 2014.

I have historically argued quite hard against the existence of deliberate and malicious ‘conspiracies’ to remove the children from the working classes and hand them over to the middle classes. Government – you are not helping me.



19 thoughts on “Adoption: A vision for change?

  1. Julie Doughty

    Regarding the point below, I’m afraid there is a very serious error in the DfE paper. The Selwyn research refers to a disruption rate in adoption of 3.2% over a period of 12 years, not 3.2% per year. Nor does she say the children all returned to care. The rate for residence orders was a shorter period. The full report is available on the Bristol University website.

    ‘ The foreword states that only 3.2% of children return to care every year after an Adoption Order is granted, compared to 25% of children on a ‘residence order’. This is from research by Selwyn and Masson in 2014. Thus adoption is offers the best chance for stability for children.

    However, it is not clear to me from either the policy paper or the article which it cites (why not link to the actual research??) whether the disruption rates refer to adopted children subject to a care order after adoption or who are accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act (i.e. by agreement with the adoptive parents). Both are ‘looked after’ children but only those subject to care orders will have gone back to court. Thus this simple comparison between disruption rates in adoption and ‘residence orders’ is not helpful without clearly stating what is meant by ‘returning to care’.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      Thanks for clarifying this Julie. It is very important that we stick to the facts in such an important debate.

  2. Angelo Granda

    QUOTE: The government’s vision is to ‘radically reform the children’s social care system’ and to structure reforms around three areas: people and leadership, practice and systems; governance and accountability. There is a need ‘to focus relentlessly on front line practice. We need all services to deliver high quality; governance and accountability. :UNQUOTE

    It is difficult to disagree with this part of the plan and we should note well that it talks in terms of radical reform of the children’s social work system as a whole not only of the CS.

    As far as restructuring practice and systems is concerned,perhaps they have finally recognised that most Social Services departments are poorly managed and short-staffed which leads to malpractices and that it is the fault of LA’s for not supplying adequate finance and leadership.Yet they seem to have plenty money to throw away on private foster care and residential homes.

    I agree the system requires radical reform..What it needs to do is make sure decisions that children cannot live with their parents are ALWAYS correct and proportionate!
    In my opinion, even if there was ten times more sw’s and caseloads were reduced to realistic,manageable levels, the problem of wrong decisions will still present itself.
    The sw’s would still act in the financial interests of their LA against the human rights of children. They would still blur the distinction between neglect and serious child-abuse.
    For that reason,a really radical restructuring would také ‘permanence’ decisions out of the hands of the CS. Also the LA’s.

    Have the Government asked for suggestions or do you think they are going to spend another few years talking about it?

  3. Angelo Granda


    I wonder if the Family Courts see themselves as a central part of the ‘social work system’ and if the Government recognizes, as I do, it needs to focus relentlessly upon its own frontline practices.
    Once again, I have to thank Sarah for her openness and honesty. I rely on her continuous patience with criticism knowing she accepts it in good part because she understands Churchill’s view that it is necessary to reform failing systems. When I focus on frontline practices, I do so to be constructive.

    QUOTE: The Government’s only legitimacy is that afforded to it by law. It will not be able to resile from Article 8 without enormous effort. But the battle will be long and expensive. And again the children are the ones who will suffer: UNQUOTE
    The LA’s only legitimacy is that afforded to it by law. At present, they don’t have to try too hard to resile from Article 8 because the judiciaries encourage it. In respect of Article 8 procedural safeguards which are key to issues of proportionality, the Family Court does not enforce them scrupulously saying that sometimes ignoring them will make no difference to the outcome of a case. So the LA’s flout them knowing that this precedent allows them to. The judiciary has the gift to compel the LA to follow article 8 principles but does not choose to do so.

    QUOTE: I have historically argued quite hard against the existence of deliberate and malicious ‘conspiracies’ to remove the children from the working classes and hand them over to the middle classes. Government – you are not helping me: UNQUOTE

    I do not think for one moment that there is a deliberate, malicious conspiracy by SW’s to remove children from home unlawfully. However, I believe the problems are connected with corruption and malpractice inherent in the system in which generally honest sw’s are called upon to operate. If I am totally wrong and there is a deliberate conspiracy, then it must be at a much higher level than frontline social work staff. The Judiciary and Court executive would have to be involved in any conspiracy existing, in my view, because it sets the standards.

    Surely not! I don’t believe the judiciary is malicious in anyway; I do believe the Family Courts have low standards on the frontline, however. Serious cases should be heard at a higher court or there should be an automatic right to appeal Family Court decisions. The Judiciary should reform the Family Court system.

    QUOTE: It is very important that we stick to the facts in such an important debate: UNQUOTE

    It is essential to justice that we stick to facts. The reason why the CS does not carry out fair and impartial investigations of them and why it persistently relies on false statements made under oath is because on past precedent, it can get away with it.
    For example, it can report a totally absurd, untrue and probably, malicious referral to a family court. It does not waste its time investigating whether or not the referral is true or not. It may even engineer one itself. This may seem outlandish to readers, especially parents, but it does not matter to the judiciary whether a referral is based on facts or not. Precedent says not! Knowing precedent, why should the CS investigate the facts? Why should it give the facts when the Court does not insist on them?

    The fault here is all about training and leadership. Managers and team leaders avoid the true facts. How do I know this? I had access to a Complaints Investigation Report after a parent complained about a false referral. The key social worker admitted she had not questioned the parent to investigate the truth of it due to ‘time scales’ for making assessments. Neither did she question the referrer. The independent, high-ranking supposedly independent complaints investigator (and a neutral observer) did not uphold the complaint. She agreed the referral was totally untrue and apologized but after taking ‘legal advice’ she found that it makes no difference to the CS. It is not important whether it was true or not. That ‘someone one thought it might be true’ was more important to the Family Court. Cloud-cuckoo appraisals can be made on the strength of absurdly untrue reports.

    All comments welcome.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I am going to write something else about Article 8 – some exchanges on Twitter today have made me realise the disconnect between lawyers/SW/Government is bigger than I thought.

  4. julie selwyn

    Glad that Julie highlighted the error in the first publication of the Adoption Vision paper- it has now been corrected on-line. The statistics were calculated for children subject to orders. The debate does not seem to consider the rights of children to a family life or to be free from abuse and neglect ( UNCRC). We know a great deal about the long term effects of abuse ( e.g and the sooner a child is removed from abusive parenting ( where there is no evidence that the parent wants to or can make the necessary changes) the better for the child’s future. it is also important that they are placed with a permanent family quickly. We know that moves in care are associated with the development of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Moves are very stressful for children and the impact should not be underestimated. The majority of children being adopted have 2 or more moves before being placed and therefore it is important to also consider the developmental needs of children. As a researcher I have spoken to those who were placed for adoption who ask why it had taken so long. The voice of adoptees is not heard especially those who were left in abusive situations for far too long.

    1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

      I agree entirely. Six months of waiting is a very long time for a young child and each move from different placements I am sure does damage.

      BUT the point I am making is that currently the law is very clear about the positive obligations imposed by Article 8 of the ECHR and this government (and some social workers it would seem) cannot simply proceed as if the law doesn’t exist. This has very serious consequences for the rule of law and public respect for both law and government.

      If the government feel that current interpretations of Article 8 are actually harming children’s welfare by making it too difficult or time consuming to remove children from abusive parents, then by all means say so and do something about it by changing the law. But to simply plough on with ‘more adoptions, more quickly’ is in defiance of current law and makes me very uneasy for that reason alone.

  5. Angelo Granda

    Quite right Sarah. We should not DEPRIORITISE the human rights of citizens and the rule of law on the altar of what social work theory sees to be in the best interests of children be removed from abusive situations and resettled with adoptive parents a.s.a.p.

    I think also that the current law should not be altered on those grounds either.Child rescuers will never be happy until they have the power to remove children and break apart family groups more or less at will .Then they will have no case to answer.Authoriatarinism has to be kept under control.Children must not be made subject to orders without their cases having been conducted in compliance with the law.

    In this day and age,Sarah, i do think that many child-protection professionals , especially the post 1980 crop , have little appreciation of unfettered human rights and freedoms because they haven’t the life experience of such freedoms themselves.Many have been removed by do-gooders as we all know.For example, genuinely fair enquiries and trials also unfettered free speech which is disallowed because social workers may be offended.Lots of other liberties have been removed too!. Whereas once, a parent might be quite fairly castigated for being drunk in charge of a child nowadays they can have their characters assassinated simply because on occasion they might exceed guidelines issued by the medical authorities.Just because that is not p.c. it is not abuse of children.

    I hope the views of an old-fashioned parent helps.

  6. Angelo Granda

    The issue of rushing cases through without appropriate thought and analysis of alternative strategies more in keeping with The Children’s Act legitimate objectives and article 8 is an important one ( as identified by Sarah).
    Focussing on frontline practices, in my opinion,it is the job of the professionals ( sw’s, advocates,medics, education,potential support services,LAC review chairpersons) to carry out full analasyse,core-assessments etc. and to arrive at humane care-plans before even thinking of initiating court proceedings. During all pre-proceedings meetings parents should be involved as a matter of course and apart from the parents advocate, there should be an impartial professional mediator ( i suggest a barrister) who can order specialist reports and make judicial decisions, track the case with regard to all aspects of correct procedure and human rights safeguards etc. Unfortunately,in actual fact, LAC chairpersons lack impartiality being closely involved with the CS and they are employed by the LA. So they don’t mediate and often exclude parents advocates from taking part in meetings.
    The reason all this work has to be done pre-proceedings is the shortage of court time.The Court executive has to get cases through as quickly as it possibly can and its protocol demands that hearings are brief and to the point.It sets strict time schedules and keeps to them.
    This should also make us uneasy! The court does not have the time,inclination or duty to analyse care-plans and reports comprehensively; it relies on the other professionals to ensure they are correct and made according to guidelines.
    This is why i think the present pre-proceedings planning meetings and decision-making should be enacted under the scrutiny of a barrister ( with recorder or dj powers).After all they are Children’s Act proceedings even though not in the court-room. The barrister would be aiming to keep matters out of the county court arena if he possibly could and. being impartial, parents would be more trusting.If temporary removal was absolutely necessary,the parents are likely to consent to it.When a competent ,independent, impartial barrister were supervising,the S20 could not be misused and abused.

    1. Sam

      I think I saw something recently where it seems judges may get involved pre proceedings. I would like to see Children’s Services actually having to properly evidence what they have done to divert proceedings before they could even issue an application. I am sure someone else may be able to find the link
      I don’t know in your scenario if you would need a Barrister just someone truly impartial and not in the pay of the LA like IRO’s. Do you think once proceedings start that all assessments should be completed by an independent social worker?

      1. Angelo Granda

        Ideally i suggest all social workers should be independent in so far as they are not a part of the local authority at all thus uninfluenced bt its financial interests.That would mean disbanding the current CS and setting up a new national organisation of sw’s dedicated to enquiries and assessments. However,all these suggestions are just rough ideas. The professionals will have to decide but it is essential that radical reorganisation is needed to guarantee that investigations and sw assessments are fair and impartial.
        What a massive culture shock visions forchange like this would be for the system as a whole! It is necessary though,in my view.Built-in fairness.
        My fear is that as usual,Sám,the Government talk of visions for change but the system itself does not have the WILL to reform itself.It wants things to carry on as they have been for so many years.I can understand why old campaigners like Ian have become so cynical about . Even more cynical than me.
        Yet ,we don’t need a revolution, the law is already in place, all we need is for lawyers to enforce its requirements.If the CS is obviously not impartial, we should demand an ISW.

  7. ian josephs

    Maggie Mellon, British Association of Social workers; Vice Chair says:-

    “I believe that suspicion of parents and of families has become corrosive, and is distorting the values of our profession.

    For the last 20 plus years the number of investigations or assessments into families suspected of child abuse has climbed steadily upwards and now accounts for one in 20 families in England and Wales !!!

    A recent analysis found that since the Children Act 1989 referrals have increased by 311%, from 160,000 per year to 657,800 per year, between 1991 and 2014.

    Assessments have increased by 302% over the same period, from 120,000 to 483,800, while the number of cases of ‘core abuse’ have fallen. The figures show that the ratio of referrals to registrations have fallen year on year from 24.1% to 7.3%.

    “The policy imperative towards more and quicker forced adoption means we may well look back at this period in horror as we do now to the forcible removal of thousands of children to Australia in the 1930s, forties and fifties without their parents’ knowledge and consent. That was done because it was felt it was the right thing but now we think how on earth could we possibly have done that ….”

    1. Angelo Granda

      With regards to that last paragraph by Maggie Melon, I am interested to know what Sarah thinks about Maggie’s view. Also whether Maggie is an official representative opinion of SW’s like Helen Sparkles ( an opinion sw’s are unable to voice personally at conferences and on the forums).
      I have opinions on SW’s making decisions in this century in regard to the welfare of children ‘without their parents knowledge and consent’. Can we discuss it? Or does the forum moderator consider that it is unhelpful for us to make comparisons with (harp back to ) 20th century atrocities and injustices?

      1. Sarah Phillimore Post author

        Maggie’s view is shared by many academics in the social work field such as Prof Brig Featherstone who spoke at CPConf2015 and who wrote ‘Re-Imagining Social Work’ with Professor Sue White. I suspect many social workers ‘on the front line’ also share this view, but as Helen has commented, they don’t have the same freedom about speaking out.

        I don’t find the use of the word ‘atrocity’ helpful because I dislike this kind of hyperbole. The murder of millions of Jews in death camps during the Second World War was an ‘atrocity’. If you use the word ‘atrocity’ to describe a policy of child protection that has gone astray then you run out of words to describe what is truly atrocious. I think there is certainly a risk that the current system has caused or will cause injustice but this is not necessarily an ‘atrocity’.

  8. Angelo Granda

    I just wanted to make an important point .I have commented many,many times that i do not consider that most sw’s or most other grass roots cp professionals are ‘liars’ or deliberately malicious but i think they are badly trained, often incompetent and that they are sadly embroiled in a corrupt system in which spanish practices predominate .
    Most of them do not even realise they are doing wrong . As i have said, it is not a question of ‘lies’,the problem is that mistruths enter into proceedings because cases are conducted wrongly when legal guidelines are not followed.
    For a start, we should remember that if sw’s actually knew that the CS was acting illegally ,for example ,if there was a widespread culture of child-sex abuse or malicious abuse of human rights within the system, there would be nothing whatsoever to prevent individuals coming on to forums like this anonymously to blow the whistle.Yet none of them do .
    Another point is this. Despite all the malpractice and incompetence and despite the LA rules which ban them from talking and the secrecy they are expected to conform to, they prove their basic honesty because they reveal so much to us without realising the significance of it.
    For example, one SW stated quite openly and honestly that ,as far as SW’s are concerned , there is no such thing as a fair and impartial investigation and assessment. That was as good as admitting that ,from the outset, the object was not to help and support children,but to prove significant harm in order to remove them from their parents .She described how difficult it was for sw’s to prove significant harm. Clearly she does not understand the guidelines which demand an impartial examination of facts or the obvious which is that where significant harm has occurred , there would be little difficulty ‘proving’ it. There is only a problem when none has occurred because there are no facts to prove it. That is when they have to start bringing in theory and ( such as that of attachment) ‘guesswork and speculation aswell as hearsay.
    Yes, most social workers are honest. Such as the one who regards the law as just one aspect of social work. It is clear to me that the LA’s have their aims
    ( legitimate or illegitimate) and that they intend to achieve them .The law is a barrier which they have to cross in order to get what they want. not a set of procedures,guidelines,practice rules and lawful aims which they are meant to support and uphold.
    I hope this all makes sense to readers and explains a few things.. I have to say also that if Maggie Mellon represents the Association of Social Workers, then how much more honest can they be.

    What she says demonstrates fairly clearly that the SW’s follow a POLICY IMPERATIVE. The policy is set by the LA’s .Not the LAW.

  9. Natasha

    Just wanted to thank you for your excellent posts Sarah Phillimore. I am currently doing Masters in Social Work and your posts give me food for thought.

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