Thanks, Hugh [Thornbery, Chief Executive, Adoption UK]. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I firstly want to thank you for your personal contribution and that of Adoption UK - as well as that of many others who are here today - in supporting our efforts to transform adoption and the support families receive.
And, as you say, this support, and the educating of professionals who work with these families, is absolutely critical to making adoptions a success.
This is something I know a bit about from my own family experience. When Oliver, the elder of my 2 adopted brothers, first came to live with us as a foster child, he was just 6. But it was clear at the start that he arrived weighed down with more emotional baggage than personal possessions. And little did we know then what lay in store.
He’d been mentally and physically abused and, as we now know, had real attachment problems. But, 30 years ago, when he came to live with us, therapy was neither well known nor well developed, never mind easy to access.
So, as for a lot of adoptive families, it was a hard road at times, veering from delight to deep hair-tearing despair. But thanks to the unconditional support of my parents and our family, Oliver found his feet. He has now set up his own home and recently celebrated his third year in the same job.
But looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that Oliver, despite not receiving therapy, has gained a great deal from his adoption - as we all have. Few experiences are as rewarding or potentially as demanding. And all those who so generously open their homes and hearts to needy children deserve our utmost gratitude as well as our support.
But while the permanence of adoption can be a wonderful gift, many of these children, like Oliver, have previously suffered great trauma - 70% of those adopted in 2012 to 2013 entered care due to abuse and neglect, compared to 62% of all children in care.
The fallout from this can cast a very long shadow over their new life, making it hard for them to form close, positive relationships well into adulthood. To really bond and lay down roots with their new family, they often need help to be able to heal and trust in a better future.
Need for better support
However, far too often, such help remains out of reach, compounded by many adoptive families being unaware of their rights and entitlements. Something that can leave families really struggling and, in the worst cases, result in adoptions breaking down. The fear of being left alone to cope can also put off prospective adopters.
Which is why better support for these families is absolutely fundamental to our adoption reforms.
Now, we recently had some good news about adoptions climbing to their highest level since records began, following a 15% increase between 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013.
And yesterday Ofsted published data which showed a 34% rise in the number of approved adopters over the same time period.
This is hugely encouraging, but with 6,000 children who’ve been approved for adoption still waiting, we need to go further and we need to go faster. Which is why we’re maintaining such a strong focus on reforming the way we recruit adoptive parents.
But if we’re to continue to see adoptions increasing and adoptive families flourishing, we must be there for them at every stage of the process; from our initial efforts to encourage people to consider adopting right through to the weeks, months and years afterwards as they build a new family.
And in providing better support, it’s vital that adopters are able to have a much more active role, with all of you in both specialist and universal services fully playing your part.
Reforms and the bill
Our adoption reforms aim to do exactly that; by providing adopters with much clearer information and, crucially, by giving them more choice and control over the support they get.
That’s why we’re opening up the Adoption Register, so that prospective parents can identify children for whom they might be a good match. For too long, adopters have been excluded from that process, resulting in potential matches being missed and delays and frustration all round.
We’ll test access to the register, subject to the Children and Families Bill - currently going through the House of Lords - to see how this might help adoptive families come together much more quickly. And, at an earlier stage, highlight what support might be needed.
We’re also removing the ‘cliff edge’ adoptive families face when the support a child enjoyed whilst in care is suddenly withdrawn on adoption, despite their needs remaining as pressing as ever. Our reforms will mean that parents can - if they choose - maintain more of this support after adoption, as set out in the Adoption Passport.
As I’ve said, we know that adoptive parents are often unaware of what support they’re entitled to - as borne out by research Adoption UK and others have done. And by spelling this out, the passport puts them in a much stronger position - a position further strengthened by the bill, which puts the passport on a statutory footing, requiring local authorities to inform adopters about their rights and entitlements.
Now, this is a significant advance that, along with clauses to equalise pay and leave for adoptive parents and birth parents, makes it much easier for adopters to meet their child’s needs - needs that can often be highly challenging and demand therapeutic intervention.
Access to which is where the biggest gap in support lies - and where there’s the greatest potential to make a difference to adoptive families.
Families like the couple who found music therapy to be a terrific outlet for their adopted son, helping him overcome high levels of anxiety to blossom into a sociable and popular little boy.
Like the parents of 3 adopted siblings who found that attachment therapy had an “immeasurable” impact, especially when it came to developing a common language with their son and developing strategies for when he was really struggling.
And like the parent who said that: “We would not still be a family if it wasn’t for the adoption support.”
Adoption Support Fund and personal budgets
Which is why I want to see as many adoptive families as possible benefit from the new Adoption Support Fund, which, as you know, we recently launched with a contribution of £19.3 million.
We’ll be trialling a small version of the fund in a number of local authorities from January next year. And we’ll also be testing personal budgets as part of this process - an important step towards really putting adoptive families in the driving seat and giving them unprecedented control over the support they receive.
I’m also keen to see more providers inject fresh energy and ideas into this essential area so that parents have real choice over how they spend their budget.
So while we’ll be retaining existing restrictions on who can deliver adoption support, we’ll be commissioning research, as Hugh said, over the next few months, on the adoption support market and exploring how we can encourage more providers to enter the fray.
In doing that, we must make sure that the way we assess the need for adoption support is as robust as possible. Which is why we’ve asked BAAF to develop and test a new model for assessing need within these pilots.
In all of this, we’ll be working closely with Hugh and others to ensure the fund evolves to serve adoptive families in all areas, closing the gap between need and provision of support as far as possible before national rollout in 2015.
I’m particularly hopeful that the fund won’t just generate more providers, but more high-quality providers. So we move from a place where we’re happy meeting minimum standards, to a place where we’re aiming to provide the best support possible.
Where we’re opening up access to interventions based on rigorous evidence and innovative thinking - as seen in today’s presentation on AdOpt and in my department’s funding of voluntary organisations such as Coram, Adoption Matters Northwest and After Adoption to help expand their provision.
There’s also some great work happening in a number of local authorities like Oxfordshire which provides an adoption buddy scheme, courses on anger management and an education psychologist for adopted children in school - all of which are highly regarded by parents.
And East Sussex - judged “outstanding” by Ofsted in 2012 - which has developed close links with the virtual school head to ensure the needs of adopted children are met in schools as well as commissioning a specialist CAHMS service to sit within adoption.
On top of this, I’m eager to ensure that social workers, like many of you here today, get all the support and training you need to drive this kind of inspiring practice. Which is why we’ve been working closely with Research in Practice to produce new social work training modules. And with the College of Social Work, which has just published a continuous professional development curriculum guide for fostering and adoption covering child development, attachment theory and adoption support.
Engaging universal services
But it’s also vital that we get universal services like education and health on board.
It’s clear that adoptive families rely on them as much as specialist services. An Adoption UK survey from last year, for instance, found that two-thirds of adoptive parents felt that their children faced specific challenges at school due to past trauma and neglect.
And it’s with this in mind that we’re providing extra support for adopted children through our education reforms and moves to engage health professionals.
So, from 2014, children adopted from care will be eligible for the pupil premium and pupil premium plus and for free early education under the programme aimed at the most disadvantaged 2-year-olds.
This comes on top of our move to extend priority school access to children adopted from care.
And I know that adoption support agencies like After Adoption and PAC are striving to raise awareness of attachment in schools.
We’re also raising awareness among professionals in the health service, who have a particularly crucial role to play supporting in adopted children, given their high level of mental health needs.
I’m encouraged by efforts to drive improvements in this pivotal area such as the pioneering work being undertaken by The Maudsley, which I know you’ll be hearing about later. But there’s clearly more to do to ensure that adoptive families get timely access to good mental health services that really understand their needs, especially as regards attachment.
That’s why we’ve commissioned the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) to produce clinical guidelines on attachment, to help make services more responsive to adoptive families and trigger referrals where appropriate.
We’re also promoting greater understanding among health professionals by contributing to the Department of Health’s new online portal dedicated to children and young people’s mental health.
And we’re encouraging national and local health service commissioners to respond to the needs of adopted children - children who are now recognised as a key group by the NHS Commissioning Board and in statutory guidance on joint strategic needs assessments and joint health and wellbeing strategies. I’m confident that this recognition will stand them in good stead as integrated services for vulnerable groups are being planned and commissioned.
And greater integration is what we should all be striving for when it comes to support for adoptive families.
As with our reforms to special educational needs, we need services across health, education and care to work together much more closely on behalf of these families - who, like those affected by SEN, don’t especially care who provides help, just that it works, is joined up and there when they need it.
Given the distinct overlap between children in care and those with SEN - over two-thirds of looked-after children have some form of SEN - the case for collaboration on adoption support is doubly compelling. Again, as with SEN, innovation and personal budgets will be key to driving closer working and new, better ways of providing the help families so desperately need.
Because if adoption changes lives, then that goes double for adoption support - support that can quite simply be the difference between a family sinking or swimming. And it’s in all our interests to see that many more adoptive families not just swim but get to fly.
That they can truly take advantage of the invaluable opportunity that adoption offers for enduring love and stability.
Our own family’s experience with Oliver leaves me in no doubt that timely, effective support is critical to help vulnerable children recover from past trauma and build a better future with their new families.
It’s also essential to ensuring that adoptions happen in the first place.
Prospective parents are much more likely to come forward if they’re reassured that they can count on good support right from the start. So we have to be careful that we don’t limit our ambitions to just what happens after adoption.
There’s no question in my mind that the drive to attract more adopters and boost adoptions and the drive for better support are just two sides of the same coin.
It’s why our reforms aim to transform both recruitment and support; from the significant extra funding that we’re giving to local authorities and voluntary adoption agencies to attract adopters through to the Adoption Support Fund and the measures in the Children and Families Bill.
Looking at the recent upturn in adoptions, I’m encouraged that these reforms are beginning to bear fruit. That hasn’t happened by accident. We’ve driven this from government. And I’d like to thank everyone here today and beyond who has contributed to making this happen. Your advice and support has been greatly valued.
So I very much hope you’ll continue to work with us, whether as part of a universal or a specialist service, statutory or voluntary, so that no vulnerable child misses out on the chance of finding a loving home for good.