News story

Call for views: birth-parent contact and siblings in care

Details of a proposed change in the law to help place children at the heart of the care and adoption system.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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.

Today the Government will publish two discussion papers seeking views - the first reviewing contact arrangements for children with their birth parents and the second looking at placing sibling groups for adoption.

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.

Government’s Advisor on Adoption Martin Narey said:

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.


  1. You can listen to a podcast interview of Martin Narey talking about his proposed changes to the adoption system on the Department of Education’s website.

  2. The government published An Action Plan for Adoption: Tackling Delay in March 2012, setting out reforms to speed up the adoption system in England. You can access it on the children and young people pages of the Department for Education’s website.. 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 4 years. * Proportion of children in each local authority waiting longer for adoption than 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 3-year rolling averages covering the financial years between 2008 to 2009 and 2010 to 2011. They will be updated with the 2011 to 2012 data later this year. * A new 6-month approval process. This will consist of a 2-month pre-qualification stage, followed by a 4-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.

  3. 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. More information is available on the news pages of the Department for Education website.

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Published 20 July 2012