Adoption Statistics

Adoption and Child Protection Trends in England

I am grateful for this information provided by Andy Bilson and Elizabeth Hunter Munro about the recent study examining two cohorts of children in a variety of local authorities which revealed the startling difference between different areas in the number of children adopted; these differences were not related to contrasts in affluence/deprivation.

The number of children being investigated is on the rise; so too the numbers in the categories of neglect and emotional maltreatment.

Andy will be joining the Panel for the afternoon discussions on September 15th at the Conway Hall, to consider if risk of future emotional harm is really a justifiable reason to remove chlldren from their families. Please see here for more details and how to buy tickets. 


Background to the study

In 2000, the government announced its intention to increase adoption and introduce a new form of permanent placement called special guardianship (SG) to reduce the numbers who stay for long periods in care. All subsequent governments have promoted adoption and, more recently, government has called for the number of adoptions to be doubled. A key aim of this policy is to reduce the number of children looked after, especially those who spend long periods in care, and instead to find permanent homes through one of these two means. By 2017 the rate of adoptions had more than doubled since 1999 and when SG is added almost four times as many children left care to these permanent placements . Between 2000 and 2017, 92,610 children left the care system to these permanent placements . Despite the dip in the annual number of children leaving care to be adopted since the 2014-15 financial year, the number of those aged under 18 who have left care to be adopted is higher than at any time this century . Over the same period the number of children in care has increased by 25% and is higher than for over 30 years and more children are spending long periods in care. This has led to Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Judiciary saying that the family court service in England faced a “clear and imminent crisis” because of large increases in the number of care cases (cited in Bowcott, 2016).

The incoming President, Sir Andrew McFarlane confirmed the continuing crisis and its link to reducing support for families saying:

“It may properly be said that we have reached a stage where the threshold for obtaining a public law court order is noticeably low, whereas, no doubt as a result of the current financial climate, the threshold for a family being able to access specialist support services in the community is conversely, very high” (McFarlane 2018)

Underpinning these trends in care and adoption there have been large increases in the number of children who have been investigated under section 47 of the 1989 Children Act (hereafter referred to as child protection investigations) because of concerns that they may have suffered or be likely to suffer significant harm (Bilson and Martin, 2016). The proportion of referrals and children in need that receive an investigative response has grown significantly in recent years and the biggest impact is felt in areas where deprivation is highest. Bilson et al (2017) estimated that, before the age of five, 22% of all children living in the most deprived 10% of communities were classified as having been in need because of abuse or neglect or the related category of family dysfunction.

In order to understand how these trends relate to each other and whether there are differences in practice between local authorities this paper provides an analysis of data from new freedom of information requests to the Department for Education and local authorities in England concerning two cohorts of children and their experience of children’s services before their fifth birthdays in the years ending 31st March 2012 and 2017.

The Study

The study used freedom of information requests with responses from around half of all local authorities to compare involvement with children’s services before their fifth birthday in 2011-12 and 2016-17. The number of children adopted and the number subject of section 47 enquiries increased by 50% in just five years. By 2016-17, 6.4% of all five year-olds, one in every sixteen of the more than 350,000 five-year-olds in these authorities, had been subject of investigations. These changes were not evenly distributed and rates of children who had an adoption decision before the age of five, either being adopted or on a placement order at the age of five, varied significantly across the country with a twelve-fold difference between the highest and lowest rates. These differences were not simply due to differences in deprivation. For example Southampton, which had the highest rate of children adopted or on a placement order at the age of five (1.85% of five-year-olds), had significantly higher rates than its ‘statistical neighbours’ in the study.

The twenty local authorities with the biggest increases in adoption decisions had a 96% increase in the number of children adopted or on placement orders in five years. Across these authorities all aspects of children’s services activity had increased more than in the other 50 local authorities with child protection investigations changing most – they increased by 90% and 7.8% of all children were investigated under section 47 before their fifth birthday. The research thus raises the question of why these authorities had such a large change in concerns about significant harm (child protection plans increased by 52% while investigations increased by 90%) and asks the question of why rates of adoption vary so much between local authorities.

The study confirms earlier findings that 1 in 5 children are referred to children’s services before the age of five but shows rapidly increasing levels of child protection investigation and rapidly growing numbers of children separated from their parents when the cumulative effects of adoptions and special guardianship are taken into account. These trends suggest that the impact of reduced funding for family support and the increasing stress put on families through growing inequality are impacting strongly on children and families.

Neglect and emotional maltreatment

Of particular interest to the discussions at CPConf2018 are the findings about neglect and emotional maltreatment – these were by far the most common reasons for a child protection plan being the key category in three-quarters of plans. Child Protection plans starting because of emotional maltreatment and neglect had increased by 50% from 7,403 children to 11,097 in the five years between these cohorts. Child protection plans thus mostly focussed on these areas rather than physical and sexual maltreatment.


Further reading

Risk prediction tools in child welfare contexts: the devil in the detail, Emily Keddell 6th April 2018

The Care Crisis Review  June 2018 The Family Rights Group – A sector-led Review of the rise in applications for care orders and the number of children in care

Postcode Lottery for Adoption June 2018 The Bureau for Investigative Journalism


Adoption Statistics

Discussion about what the statistics do or don’t tell us about the rise (or fall!) in adoption rates has grown considerably throughout 2015. Therefore we have removed this discussion from the Forced Adoption post to consider it separately here.

Those who campaign against ‘forced adoption’ maintain that the initial ‘targets’ to get children out of foster care and into permanent families has lead to a ‘trickle down’ effect so that SW target cute ‘adoptable’ children and initiate care proceedings to get them into the system and thus improve their ‘adoption hit rate’. If this is true, can we find any support for it in the data which is published about applications for various orders and the orders that are eventually made? 


Lies Damned Lies and Statistics – what do the figures say about adoption rates?

On 30th September 2014 the government issued a press release applauding the rise in adoption numbers. Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education said:

Today’s figures show a significant and sustained rise in the number of adoptions – an increase of 26% in the last 12 months. This means thousands more of our most vulnerable children are finding the loving and permanent homes they so desperately need.

We also promised to remove delay and frustration from the process for both children and adopters. Today’s figures show that we are delivering on that promise. The system is working more quickly, as well as providing more support to families after an adoption has taken place.

However, In November 2014 Sir Martin Narey raised concerns that since February 2014 LA decisions to pursue adoptions are down by 46% and number of placement orders granted by the courts has halved.

His concerns were so great that the National Adoption Leadership Board issued ‘myth busting’ guidance about what the court does or does not say about when adoption is necessary.

For further discussion see Pink Tape’s ‘Take me to your Leadership Board’.  We look at this issue in more detail in the post ‘When can the courts consider adoption is necessary?

It is clear that the Government remain committed to increasing the numbers of children in care being adopted and refer to the recent authorities as ‘set backs’. See this answer from the Prime Minister at Parliamentary Questions in 2015:

Hansard from Wed ( October 14th 2015 ) : Q4. [901524] Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con): The Prime Minister recently spoke movingly and shockingly about the life of despair that still lies ahead for too many of our looked-after children.
Notwithstanding the vital work that has been done in recent years, will he expand on the reforms that he proposes for these, our most vulnerable citizens?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about this from the work he did in London when working for the Mayor.
I think that there are two areas we need to look at most of all. First, we need to speed up adoption processes. We should be reducing the number of children in care by ensuring that they can find loving family homes. We have made some progress, but frankly we have had set-backs, not least because of some of the judgments in our courts, so we need to get the level of adoption back up again. Secondly, we need to take some of the knowledge from our education reforms and use it to reform social services.

The rise and fall of adoption rates.

So there was no doubt that adoption rates were rising. But they are probably going to fall again given that decisions by LAs to pursue adoption have fallen by nearly half.

See further the excellent article by suesspiciousminds about newspaper reports in May 2015 concerning the ‘freefall’ in adoption rates after the ‘chilling effects’ of various cases. 

So have the anti forced adoption campaigners had an impact? Are they responsible for this fall by unmasking the truth behind ‘adoption targets’?

We believe the short answer to that question is ‘no’.  To consider this in more detail,  we need to look at the reasons behind the previous rise in the number of adoptions. There are a number of possible explanations:

  • First; that the governments plans to speed up adoption rates for the children already in care were working well; OR
  • LAs were generally under pressure to avoid another Baby P scandal and were pushing for adoption in cases where before a child might have returned home; OR
  • LAs were suffering the consequences of difficulties in recruitment and retention of social workers so cases were not being assessed as carefully as they should be; OR
  • LAs were deliberately targeting younger, more ‘adoptable’ children and social workers would lie to ensure the children’s removal from loving and blameless parents.


Can the statistics help us decide what’s been going on?

The danger with statistics is that often they can be used to prove any kind of argument you want. Some opponents of the system have at times offered quite contradictory views about what is going on – see this report from the Daily Mail in 2011 which asserted that adoption rates were falling because adoptive parents were afraid of being called paedophiles.

The blogger Second Daddy comments:

If you want to learn about Forced Adoption then look into it yourself, make your own mind up. If you want to see the raw figures for adoption in 2010, the year quoted by John Hemmings MP in the above Wikipedia article, it’s here. You’ll see that there were 4550 adoptions in England & Wales that year; John Hemmings stated that there were 1360 “Forced” adoptions that year, 29.89% of the total. 1000 of these he claims were “wrong”, 21.89% of the total, 73.53% of the “forced” adoptions. So a third of Adoptions are “forced”. That’s a fairly big number, and it is something we’re aware of and it is a concern, but. But. It’s a guess. With the greatest of respect, Mr Hemming has no idea how many of these were “wrong”. He pulled that figure out of his ass, he has no proof, just a hunch.

However, if it is true that local authorities are or have been targeting younger and hence more easily adoptable children to improve their adoption rates, we should expect to see that reflected in the statistics and we should be able to see a clear rise since 2000 of babies being taken into care and subsequently adopted.


We have found the following statistics.

Children in Care and Adoption

In 1976 4,000 babies were adopted. In 2011, 60 (according to the Daily Mail).

Research from Karen Broadhurst (see below) shows a significant and worrying increase in the numbers of newborns who end up subjected to final care and placement orders.

The article ‘Adoption Targets Row; the Sector Responds’ from 2007 in Community Care gives the following figures:

  • 2,490 under-fives in care were adopted in 2006, up from 1,010 in 1995.
  • 4,160 under-fives were first taken into care in 2006, up from 2,870 in 1995.
  • 1,300 babies aged younger than a month when they were taken into care were adopted in 2006, up from 540 in 1995.
  • The average age at adoption in 2006 was four years and one month.
  • 3,700 children were adopted from care in 2006, up from 2,700 in 2000.

So we can see there has been an increase in children being taken into care and being adopted over time from a low starting point, but that the average age for adoption in 2006 was over 4 years old. So 4 years after Hemming argues that babies are being targeted, this does not appear  to be reflected in the average age on adoption.

Compare this with statistics from 2013 

6% (4,310) of children looked after on 31st March 2013 were under 1 year old
18% (12,360) were aged between 1 and 4 years old
19% (13,260) were aged between 5 and 9 years old
36% (24,450) were aged between 10 and 15 years old
20% (13,730) were aged 16 and over

The average age at adoption in the year ending 31st March 2013 was 3 years 8 months

2% (90) of children adopted during the year ending 31st March 2013 were under 1 year old
74% (2,960) were aged between 1 and 4 years old
21% (850) were aged between 5 and 9 years old
2% (70) were aged between 10 and 15 years old
<1% (10) were aged 16 and over

So we see that only 6% of looked after children in March 2013 were under one year old.  Only 90  (2%) were under 1 year old when they were adopted. There is a small decrease from the average age at adoption in 2006 of 4 years 1 month, to 3 years 8 months in 2013 – six years later.

However, in 2013, 13 years after LAs were supposed to be targeting babies, across the country, they have only managed to get 90 babies adopted and the average age at adoption is nearly 4 years old.

On these figures, if there is a deliberate conspiracy to target and remove babies and young children, then the LAs are doing a pretty poor job.

In 2013 there were still 3 times as many children needing adoption as there were adoptive placements. This also points against any argument that care proceedings are targeting the ‘adoptable’ children – otherwise why are there so many children in care who can’t find adoptive families?

See further the article in Community Care;  ‘An ideological approach to adoption figures means we are missing important trends’.

Removal of new born babies

However, research by Karen Broadhurst at the University of Lancaster, in December 2015 has shown a significant increase in care proceedings involving removal of new born babies from mothers who have been involved in repeat care proceedings and have lost many proves children. She found a ‘disproportionate increase’ : from 802 in 2008 to 2,018 in 2013.

The research can be downloaded here.

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory reported in October 2018 ‘Born into Care, Newborns in Care Proceedings in England’. You can read a summary of the report which links to the full report here.  In brief, the research showed that numbers of newborns being removed were on the rise (defined as babies under 7 days). In the decade covered by the study, 173,002 children were involved in care proceedings and 47,172 (27%) were infants. At the outset, 32% of care proceedings were for newborns – by the end that had increased to 42%. Newborn cases also increased in volume over time; at the outset 1,039 cases were issued involving newborns; at the end 2,447. Thus the likelihood of newborns in the general population become subject to care proceedings has more than doubled.

The total percentage of newborns subject to final care and placement orders was 47%. 21% were placed with extended family. 13% were placed with birth family. This requires further investigation – we need to know more about the circumstances behind those percentages.

Thus does show a significant increase from 90 babies being adopted in 2013 and we need to know more about why this is happening. It does seem to support an assertion that babies are being ‘targeted’ as easier to adopt.


What happens in care proceedings?

See these statistics from the second quarter of 2015. 

John Hemmings and others often asserts that almost all care proceedings result in care orders (and thus parents should leave the jurisdiction rather than engage with care proceedings).

Figure 3 shows the proportion of children subject to which final orders at the end of care proceedings. This does not support the assertion that ‘99%’ of applications for a care order end up with the child being removed from the parents or the wider family.

  • Care Order 30%
  • Supervision Order 18%
  • Residence 12%
  • Special Guardianship 14%
  • ‘Others’  11%


ITV Exposure Documentary

On 15th July 2014 barrister Martha Cover stated on the ITV documentary Exposure – Don’t take my child  that orders ‘permitting adoption’ had risen by 95% in the past three years.  This seemed high to us so we are very grateful to Andrew Pack for doing some digging and commenting:

Placement Order applications since 2011, and Placement Orders made by the Court since 2011.  These taken from the Court stats spreadsheets.

  • In 2011 – applications made 5821, orders made 5109.
  • In 2013 – applications made 7178, orders made 6082.

That’s about a 20% increase. Annoyingly, I don’t have the stats for 2010, which is presumably when Martha is calculating from, but I’d be REALLY surprised if it was as high as claimed. For that to be right, the applications in 2010 would need to have been around 3500… Interestingly, you can see a downturn on both in the last 6 months (i.e. since the Re B-S stuff was really percolating through) – and it is almost 50% down in the first quarter of this year from the high point.

I reckon the error here is in taking the numbers of children each year who are subject to Placement Orders, which is going up at a significant rate, as demand for placements outstrips supply and we add to the numbers each year with new cases, but also don’t clear the decks of the children the year before who needed placements.

A 20% increase in something as drastic as placement orders is still reason for concern, but it isn’t 95%, not by a long chalk.

Follow the money

You may be interested in these articles by Andrew Pack for more detailed consideration of whether it is possible that there  is a financial motive or incentive driving care proceedings.

He comments:

What I would say, for the ultra-cautious people, is that I would agree that the lack of transparency on ‘payments and adoption targets’ is deeply unhelpful and creates a genuine reason for people to feel sceptical, uncomfortable and unhappy. The absence of clarity and transparency is itself very shabby. It may or may not have distorted how many times adoption was recommended in final social work evidence, it may or may not have had an impact on individual people’s cases. At this point, we don’t have the evidence to draw a proper conclusion and that in itself is wrong. It creates at best, a fishy odour, and as we well know, “Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done”

The impact of the continuing ‘push’ for adoption

it will be interesting to see what impact the continuing ‘push for adoption’ has on statistics in the coming years. The PM made this comment in October 2015:

Hansard from Wed ( October 14th 2015 ) : Q4. [901524]

Kit Malthouse (North West Hampshire) (Con): The Prime Minister recently spoke movingly and shockingly about the life of despair that still lies ahead for too many of our looked-after children. Notwithstanding the vital work that has been done in recent years, will he expand on the reforms that he proposes for these, our most vulnerable citizens?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about this from the work he did in London when working for the Mayor.I think that there are two areas we need to look at most of all. First, we need to speed up adoption processes. We should be reducing the number of children in care by ensuring that they can find loving family homes. We have made some progress, but frankly we have had set-backs, not least because of some of the judgments in our courts, so we need to get the level of adoption back up again. Secondly, we need to take some of the knowledge from our education reforms and use it to reform social services.For example, we need to see the best graduates going into social work.

Adoption Leadership Board reports December 2017

The summary noted that the trend in making adoption orders was upwards until a dip in 2013 following the Re B-S decision. But now about 4,000 placement orders are made each year, which suggests that the use of adoption is comparatively higher now when compared with last two decade.


Further reading about statistical trends