Over the past few months my proposition that there might be more adoptions and they might be completed more speedily has been challenged only by those who are opposed to the very concept of adoption.
But there is still, generally, a gulf between me and most of those who are pro-adoption when it comes to discussing the magnitude of the improvement that might be achievable.
My challenge that adoptions might double in number, and that the time taken to complete them might be halved, is, I am told, too ambitious. I have become used to hearing that, because I believe the interests of neglected children call for dramatically more adoptions and quicker adoptions, that I am oversimplifying issues – as the Association of Directors of Children’s Services told ‘The Guardian’ recently. And I am “cavalier”, as I was described last week by a social worker.
I believe the data that ‘The Times’ publishes today supports my conviction that dramatic change is not only possible but vital. Sometimes, when I discuss adoption with practitioners – whether in local authorities or in voluntary adoption agencies – I have intentionally talked about productivity even though I’m aware that many practitioners object to the application of such a term to an issue as sensitive as a child’s future.
But this is very much about productivity because delay is so damaging to children.
And as the data shows, we have many local authorities where adoptions have become fewer in number. We have others where delays have become longer, and some where we have fewer adoptions and lengthier delays, a double whammy which amounts to a tragedy for children waiting for a permanent home.
Why is this? My advice to Tim Loughton, the Children’s Minister, has been that we need to start by looking critically at the assessment process for adoptive parents. Not with a view to tinkering with it, but with a view to replacing it.
At the moment, we have a process which is well intentioned but repetitive, often lacking in analysis, and hugely time-consuming. It is unnecessarily intrusive, sometimes prying into the sex lives of would-be adopters, for example. And it descends into detail that borders on the ludicrous. The process can take months, even years, to complete and many would-be adopters are exhausted by it and walk away.
Sometimes, I’m accused of relying on anecdote. But the letters and emails I have received from more than 50 potential adopters are linked by the themes of delay and frustration. One woman made her first inquiry about adoption 3 1/2 years ago.
Two months later, after seeing a social worker in her home and spending 4 days on a preparation course, she applied to adopt. It was another 7 months before the assessment process even began and it then took 15 months to complete. Eventually, she was approved to adopt. That was well over a year ago and she is now becoming resigned never to seeing the child for whom she was willing to give up so much of her life.
Another correspondent, a distinguished academic, told me that his personal experience of the adoption system had convinced him that nothing less than radical reform was needed, and a new assessment process that focused on the children and prospective adopters rather than on bureaucratic or local authority imperatives.
The process has grown over time and attempts to cover every possible eventuality, however remote. It includes a health and safety assessment, which requires the social worker not simply to check that medicines are locked away or that electrical appliances appear to be safe – both of which might be sensible – but also to note whether there is a non-slip mat in the shower; the make and model of the adopters’ car; whether, in the event of a trampoline being found in the garden, it has a safety net; and whether the prospective family has a fire drill.
I have read perhaps 50 adopter assessments in the past few months. None have been fewer than 80 pages. One was 140 pages. All but a handful were repetitive, all included irrelevant information to which no adoption panel would pay attention, and all had taken many months or even years to complete.
We need to start again. In the US, assessments are completed in weeks, not months, and provide shorter but still rigorous analysis. As one American social worker told me recently, their processes are at the heart of an adoption system where the attitude towards adopters is much more positive than in the UK. One reason why there were more than 100,000 adoptions last year in the US and only 3,000 in England.