Hundreds of children are forced to wait an average of 20 months from entering care to moving in with their adoptive parents - six months slower than the timetable set out in national guidance, according to official figures published today.
The first ever local authority adoption scorecards, based on figures from 2009 to 2011, show there are widespread delays throughout the adoption process.
They show 80 local authority areas have met the interim thresholds (of 21 months from entering care to adoption and matching a child to a family within seven months of a court order being made).
But the other 72 did not meet one or both of these key measures - which will be lowered gradually to 14 months and four months respectively within four years.
The figures also reveal wide variations across the country and between neighbouring areas.
The government is now opening discussions with the areas of highest concern, probing the specific issues each one faces and assessing the plans in place to improve performance to ensure they will work.
If ministers are not satisfied they will issue formal improvement notices - setting out specific targets, measures and timetables to speed up the adoption process.
Ministers welcome the fact that more than half local authority areas are meeting this year’s thresholds but say no area can rest on its laurels.
But they argue that the entire system still has to raise its game over the coming years. There is no reason the best practice and work cannot be the norm across the country.
The scorecards are a key plank of the government’s tougher approach to addressing under-performance in the adoption system - set out in the radical Action Plan for Adoption published in March. A new assessment process will reduce bureaucracy and the delays which put off potential adopters and slow down the finding of loving homes for children.
It came after just 3050 children in care, including just 60 babies, found new homes through adoption last year, the lowest since 2001.
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:
Adoption can give vulnerable children the greatest possible chance of a stable, loving and permanent home.
Hundreds of children are being let down by unacceptable delays right across the country and throughout the adoption process. Every month a child waits to be placed, there is less chance of finding a permanent, stable and loving home. This cannot go on.
There has been some real progress, with local authorities beginning to bear down on adoption delays and helping in the re-design of a faster but still thorough adopter assessment process. But these statistics illustrate all too starkly the magnitude of the challenge which we face.
I make no apology for shining a light on the system to hold local areas to account. I have been clear that we won’t hesitate to intervene where the worst delays are not tackled effectively.
The scorecards are not the be-all and end-all or the final say. We are not asking local authorities to speed up adoptions to the exclusion of everything else - but many more areas need to strike a much better balance between quality placements and the risk of long-term damage to children by leaving them with uncertain futures.
The scorecards are a trigger for urgent, detailed discussions to analyse what the problems are in areas of highest concern.
There may be clear underlying reasons for delays - low numbers of potential adopters; the speed of local courts; high numbers of ethnic minority, sibling groups and older children in care, which are all historic barriers to securing long-term adoption.
Our work over the next few weeks will be to get to the bottom of the precise problems in each local authority area.
The Government Adoption Advisor, Martin Narey, said:
Over the last few months, and in visits to more than twenty local authorities, I have been encouraged by the way the seriousness of adoption delays has been taken on board and the determination of struggling and well performing authorities to improve.
We now have a growing and serious backlog of children cleared for adoption by the courts but for whom there are too few potential adopters. These scorecards demonstrate the reality that if delays in almost every aspect of the adoption process are not tackled urgently, the list of those in need of the loving home every child deserves will continue to grow.
Notes to editors
You can find out more information and personal stories about adoption and fostering by following the Department for Education on Twitter - @educationgovuk and using #adoption or by visiting The Department for Education’s Facebook page.
The adoption scorecards are published on the Department for Education’s website.
- The government published An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay in March 2012 setting out reforms to speed up the adoption system in England. The main elements are:
* New adoption scorecards, to hold local authorities to account. New performance thresholds will be introduced this year and raised incrementally over the next four years until they reflect the levels set out in statutory guidance. The adoption scorecards highlight three key indicators showing how quickly each local authority places children in need of adoption:
* Average time taken for a child entering care to moving in with their adoptive family. The current statutory threshold is for this to happen within 14 months - but given only four local authorities achieve this, the Action Plan for Adoption set an initial performance threshold of 21 months or 639 days, which will be lowered to 14 months within four years.
* Proportion of children in each local authority waiting longer for adoption then the 21 month threshold.Average time to match children with a family after the courts have agreed a placement order. The Action Plan for Adoption said that the initial performance threshold would be seven months or 213 days, lowering to four months within four years.The figures are based on three-year rolling averages covering 2008-09 to 2010-11. They will be updated with 2011-12 data later this year.
* A new six-month approval process. This will consist of a two-month pre-qualification stage, followed by a four-month full assessment stage. There will be a fast-track process for people who have adopted before, or who are already approved foster-carers who wish to adopt a child in their care. The government will consult on the necessary regulatory changes later this year
* A national gateway for adoption, providing a first point of contact for anyone interested in adoption. This would provide a central point of contact through a telephone helpline and website, it would provide independent advice and information about adoption and how to apply to become an adopter. The government supports this in principle and has asked the expert working group to look in more detail at its scope and function and make recommendations for its implementation.
- The Children and Families Bill announced in the Queen’s speech would include legislation to stop local authorities delaying an adoption to find the perfect match if there are suitable adopters available. The ethnicity of a child and prospective adopters will come second, in most cases, to the speed of placing a child in a permanent home.