We need to value foster care, not fixate on adoption
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Proposals in the children and families bill aimed at speeding up adoption will increase the number of placement breakdowns
By Judith Rees
April 16, 2013 / The Guardian
Many children can spend years, and sometimes their entire childhoods, with foster carers, enjoying every benefit of the stability and support they should normally expect from birth families. In fact, only a small minority of the 78,000 British children in the care system are being considered for adoption, and it is important that fostering should not be regarded as some kind of automatic conveyor belt towards adoption.
Fostering provides a safe haven and allows the professionals to work, for as long as it takes, on the best outcome for the child. It is not a second rate solution, and continues to provide a positive, long-term substitute family experience for thousands of children.
Like many other social work professionals, I am concerned that clause 1 of the children and families bill will nurture an assumption that once a child is removed from its natural family, adoption is very quickly on the agenda. If the bill is accepted it means that a child's name may be placed on an adoption register before final court proceedings and before any judicial decisions that the child should be permanently removed from its birth family.
Making decisions at such an early stage places both the child and the prospective adopters in a vulnerable position. There is a real danger that the matching process could be compromised, increasing placement breakdown and eroding the benefits of reducing delay.
This new bill also means that local authorities will be encouraged to consider placing a child in a "fostering for adoption" placement before comprehensive care planning has taken place. This provides insufficient time for proper investigation of the viability of kinship care and means that, by default, adoption will inevitably be prioritised over and above the prospect of assessing wider family members who may be able to offer a stable home.
Unless we're careful, this bill could have unintended consequences which could lead us back towards the sort of thinking that prevailed in places such as Australia in the 1960s where unwed mothers were forced to give their children up for adoption.
While hugely beneficial to thousands of children, adoption is not a step to be taken lightly, and certainly not something to be assumed as a first choice solution.
Having spent the last 15 years working exclusively in the fostering sector, I have witnessed at first-hand the indescribable distress for children of adoption breakdown, and have seen countless children and sibling groups come back into the care system as poorly prepared and poorly supported adoptive parents struggle to manage the challenges of the task. Fast tracking adoption in the single minded way proposed will simply multiply this human tragedy and compound the hurt and trauma for already vulnerable children.
As a society, we have a responsibility to put the needs of the child first, whether that is to reintegrate with birth parents members or to arrange an adoption.
Too many politicians and other professionals have offensively referred to looked-after children as "languishing in foster care" with no thought for the negative impact this can have on foster carers. There is already a significant shortage of foster carers in the UK, and devaluing the role they play in helping to rebuild children's lives will further erode this small pool of very special people.
We need to value and support foster carers instead of fixating on adoption. Fostering has evolved and professionalised over the past 20 years and is not a generic "one-size-fits-all" response. Those who work in the fostering field understand only too well the subtleties and the importance of matching children to the right carer, and fostering now offers a wide range of options to suit the various needs of children.
If the long term interests of that child finally points towards adoption, then professionals must address that in a timely and planned way – but it is essential that the law doesn't create a culture in which other options for permanence and stability are by-passed in favour of a single and fast-tracked adoption panacea.
Judith Rees is director of foster care at Orange Grove, a UK-wide independent fostering agency