The government will today propose a change in the law as part of the continuing commitment to put children at the heart of the care and adoption system - based on proposals from the government’s advisor on adoption, Martin Narey.
Last year, 9,500 children were taken into care. For each one of these children, the right plan will be entirely individual to the child and his or her needs and circumstances. This will need to change and develop as the child’s circumstances change. If the best option for a child is adoption then this should happen swiftly, so that they become part of a loving family without unnecessary delay.
Both papers call for views from professionals, charities, foster carers, children in care, adopted children and adoptive parents.
Ministers recognise that the contact a child has with their wider family can be of great importance and will consider responses before deciding what further steps to take.
It is a little more than a year since I started work as the government’s adoption advisor. For much of that time, and in the advice I have offered ministers, I have concentrated on proposals which might reduce delay.
But the challenges facing adoption are not simply about how long it takes, troubling as that is. Deciding what is best for a child taken into care, and particularly when it is decided that a return to their birth family is impossible, is rarely straightforward. The days of the relatively simple adoptions of infants relinquished at birth are long gone. Today, instead, we are dealing with children who have suffered neglect and abuse. Often those children are in sibling groups.
Today the government is asking for views on two issues which are central to the long term welfare of such children. The first is about contact between children in care and their birth families. This follows advice from me to ministers in which I have expressed anxiety about the amount of contact we allow and the potential of that to harm children. The second issue, on which I have also expressed concern, is about the extent to which we try to keep brothers and sisters together in planning for their adoption.
On contact, many of the practitioners I have spoken to during the past year, and in numerous visits to local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies, have convinced me that too often we allow contact when it is not in the best interests of the child. Sometimes, even when contact is appropriate, we allow too much of it. It is not uncommon for infants in care to be shuttled, sometimes long distances, and every day, for meetings with their birth mother of two or more hours. The distress that causes to infants gravely troubles both their foster carers and their social workers.
I have not suggested to ministers that contact between birth families and children in care should not continue to be the norm. But I have urged them to consider whether the current legislative presumption in favour of contact is appropriate and whether, instead, policy should make clear that contact must always be in the interests of the child.
On siblings, I have concluded that while we should and must do more to recruit adopters willing to take on the challenge of adopting two or more children simultaneously, we need to ensure that local authority and court decisions are informed by the research evidence which tells us - much as it might surprise us - that keeping siblings together may not always be in the interests of individual children. For example where, through a period of neglect, an older child has been effectively parenting a younger child, it can be vital for them to be separated so that each child can develop a positive attachment with their new parents.
And the adopter challenge of successfully compensating for an early life of neglect, where a child has often suffered significant harm, will often be more manageable when adopters are coping with just one child, not two, three or four.
But these are, I know, challenging and emotive issues and I expect many to take issue with my views (although I know that many practitioners and judges share my anxieties). Ministers will listen to all those views before determining the way forward. I am pleased to start the debate.