Press release

Delay in court proceedings keep children waiting for adoption

The most significant cause for delays in children needing adoption is the length of time it takes for cases to be completed in court.

Adult helping child with homework

The average time taken to complete care proceedings in the cases inspectors examined was almost 14 months.

The ‘Right on time report’ also found that although there were some delays caused by issues such as a lack of suitable adopters or weak planning, these were generally not as significant as those caused earlier by delays in initiating and concluding care proceedings.

The report explores the many critical points that can cause delay in a complex adoption system and some of the ways in which local authorities and their partners are working to overcome those barriers. The report surveyed nine local authorities, tracking 53 adoption cases in detail, and a further 36 cases were randomly sampled. Inspectors also spoke to 23 approved adopters.

Deputy Chief Inspector, John Goldup said:

For children who need the love and stability that an adoptive family can offer, what matters most is that they get that chance, in the right family, with the minimum of delay. Local authorities have a huge responsibility to play in achieving that. But this report highlights that one of the most important things we need to do if more children are to have the chance that they need, when they need it, is to get the court process right.

Decisions to place children for adoption are not easy. They are life-changing decisions that social workers and the judiciary have to make. However, the focus must always be on the child and what is best for that child. Part of that is looking at how we can minimise delays wherever possible when adoption is the right decision.

Our report highlights a range of key issues that local authorities need to address. Much of this needs to be done in partnership with the judiciary and Cafcass, the court welfare service. It urges the Government to act with urgency to implement the recommendations of the Family Justice Review which will tackle some of the root causes of delay in the system.

A high number of cases studied by inspectors had been subject to repeat or late assessments of parents or members of the wider family. The time taken to carry out these assessments often had a measurable and adverse impact upon the timely granting of an order allowing the child to be placed for adoption. It added months, or in some cases years, to the time it took to secure the new family that the child needed.

In many of the local authorities surveyed, the fragile relationship between social workers and the judiciary system meant that social workers felt they lacked credibility and status in the court arena.

Furthermore, additional and duplicate assessments ordered by the courts did not always contribute to a greater understanding of a child’s needs or result in recommendations that were different from the initial assessment.

Not intervening early enough and cases being left to ‘drift’ before care proceedings were also key factors that hindered successful adoption in the cases reviewed. The report found that some children had been known to children’s social care for a considerable length of time before any care proceedings were initiated. Typically, these cases were characterised by long-standing concerns about either neglect or emotional abuse, or both. Delays jeopardised good outcomes for children. The children were older when they entered care, and their life experiences had resulted in some significant behavioural challenges for potential adopters.

The report also found many good examples of practice where local authorities worked to minimise delays. Overall, parallel planning was good when children were taken into care or about to be placed for adoption. Most of the cases tracked showed a clear commitment to early planning for adoption at the same time as rehabilitation was being pursued. This ensured that if children could not go back to their birth family then the process for adoption was already in place.

Of those adopters that were interviewed, the majority were happy with the overall service that they received. Most did not feel that they had experienced significant delay. However, nearly all considered that there had been some kind of delay, although minor. Nearly all adopters felt they had received a welcoming and sensitive response when they first enquired about adoption, and that assessment was necessarily thorough.

The report found that processes for matching children with adoptive placements were generally robust. Of the authorities surveyed, there was little evidence of delay caused by an unrealistic search for a ‘perfect’ ethnic match.

Notes to editors

  1. Achieving timely outcomes for children who require adoption remains a significant challenge. On average, it takes 2 years and 7 months before children are adopted after entering care. Most adopted children are aged between 1 and 4 when they join their new family, with the average age at adoption standing at 3 years and 10 months.

  2. This report summarises the findings of a survey of 9 local authority areas to look at the effectiveness of arrangements to avoid delay in adoption outcomes for children. The local authorities varied in size and geographical context and included metropolitan areas and counties of varying size, with a combination of rural and urban features. The local authorities reflected a wide range of performance in adoption and recent relevant inspection outcomes. Of the 9 authorities visited, 4 had received an outstanding judgement in their most recent adoption inspection, one had been judged as good, and 4 had been judged as satisfactory.

  3. The Family Justice Review published its final report in autumn 2011 and identified that delays in care proceedings are a symptom of an over-complicated system in urgent need of reform. The report supports those specific recommendations emphasised by Professor Eileen Munro to reduce delay in care proceedings: the need for effective, timely planning processes and for productive relationships between the judiciary and the local authority. The government has now published its response to the review and endorses several relevant recommendations, including a 6 month limit on the length of care proceedings and the removal of the requirement that the adoption panel scrutinise an adoption care plan already scrutinised by the court.

Media enquiries

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Published 2 April 2012