When I was a news editor at The Times I recognised that each branch of journalism had its own favourite phrases: cliches to some, comforting and reassuring prose landmarks to others.
Footballers would always have “intelligent” (or “cultured”) left feet. Restaurant reviewers would sooner or later find a pudding - but never any other course - “toothsome”. No political correspondent ever quotes a “junior” backbencher, ever refers to the 1922Committee without reminding us that it is “influential”; or ever fails to remind readers, uncertain about which issue decides elections, that “It’s the economy, stupid”.
For TV reviewers the one genuinely indispensable favourite phrase is the praise offered to those rare television programmes which are “worth the licence fee alone”.
Considering that a boxed-set of Borgen sets you back just thirty pounds and the licence fee is four times that amount, it’s a rare programme which actually deserves that praise.
But this month we’ve been privileged to see one series which undeniably does.
The BBC’s three documentaries - Protecting Our Children - recently screened on BBC2 are in the very highest traditions of public service broadcasting.
They show, unsparingly, and without fuss, the reality of life for social workers and their clients in Bristol. Thought-provoking, unsentimental and humane, they are gripping yet uncomfortable viewing.
They also remind us that public service broadcasting is at its best when it reminds us of what those in public service are doing for all of us.
And no-one watching this series can be anything other than impressed with the calmness, patience, compassion, good judgement, professionalism and nobility of those in social work.
By giving an honest account of the fantastic job social workers do, the BBC is helping to bring a little balance to the media conversation about social work. A conversation which has been dominated for far too long by caricature, finger-pointing, recrimination and misjudgement.
The reality of Social Work
We ask social workers to operate in conditions most of us know nothing about; to engage with people in desperate need; to make extremely finely balanced ethical and practical judgements; to retain the trust of adults while thinking always of the best interests of children; to navigate bureaucracy and cope with heavy workloads. All the while knowing that if a mistake does occur then their career, indeed their professional status, may be ruined for ever.
So I am very glad that, today, Andrew Christie - one of the finest social workers in the country - has given me the opportunity to place on the record my gratitude to his profession and my admiration for the vital and under-appreciated work social workers do.
I’d like to think, and I’m sure I’ll be told if I’m wrong, that we are now moving towards a more mature relationship between social workers and central Government.
Building on foundations laid by my predecessor, Ed Balls, we now have a new College of Social Work, we have a prestigious new route into the profession for career-changers who’ve been successful in other fields, we’ve had superb work by Moira Gibb on how to improve support and training for the profession and ground-breaking reports from Professor Eileen Munro, which pave the way for progress to a more thoughtful development of improved practice.
Shortly we’ll be publishing the job specification for the role of Chief Social Worker - a new role which, like the Chief Medical Officer, will help bring balance and authority to the national debate on the profession does its job.
And we remain committed to publishing serious case reviews to encourage an informed debate when something goes wrong - as it inevitably will. A debate which will demonstrate that, if there is fault, it will very often reside not with social workers but with others - whether police, lawyers or whoever - and that far more important than any allocation of responsibility is a commitment to learn from the past so we can all do better in the future.
And it’s about learning from the past that I want to talk today.
Specifically, learning from the experience of those who have tried over the years to improve our child protection and adoption systems.
The relationship between care and disadvantage
One of those I have learnt most from is Martin Narey - Chief Executive of Barnardo’s for five years - a dedicated professional with a very special combination of moral courage and intellectual rigour.
Martin has come under fire for making one argument in particular.
He has been frank in acknowledging that earlier in his career he believed having children in care was a sign of failure. And believed that being in care condemned children, more often than not, to failure in the future.
But he has explained that, over time, he came to realise that the poor outcomes faced by looked after children were not a consequence of them being in care - they were a consequence of what had happened to them before they were taken into care.
It was the abuse or neglect they may have witnessed or endured in their earliest years which will have blighted their future. Neglect will have arrested their cognitive development; abuse will have made it more difficult for them to form secure relationships; the fatal mix of the two will have harmed them emotionally, intellectually, socially and personally.
Children and young people do not encounter disadvantage because they have been in care. They are in care because they have had to be rescued from disadvantage.
Martin also came to realise something else. Taking a child into care is not a failure on the part of social workers - but leaving children at risk of neglect or abuse is something none of us should wish to encourage.
Understandably, social workers do everything they can to keep families together. And, understandably, they fear being branded child-snatchers, do-gooders or anti-family if they initiate care proceedings.
But it is far better if social workers follow their instincts to intervene and rescue rather than acquiesce in abusive or neglectful parenting in the hope things will improve.
Because we know just how much damage is done to a child every day it spends in a home where there is no security, safety and certainty of affection.
Better to take children into care than allow them to be abused
So let me underline this. We in Government will back social workers who take children into care. We believe Martin Narey’s diagnosis of the problem is correct - and we know there are far too many children spending too long in homes where they are not receiving the care they need.
We do not regard more children being taken into care as a problem with social work which the profession must address. It is a problem with parenting, which our whole society must address.
My overriding approach to Government is to leave well alone when things are going well: to leave good schools, good parents, good companies to get on with it when they are doing a proper job. But when things go wrong - when cartels frustrate consumer choice, when schools fail their students and, most of all, when adults are neglecting, or abusing, children - then we should intervene, early and energetically, to put things right.
There is strong evidence that, in recent years, there has been too much reluctance to remove a child from circumstances of consistent and outright abuse and neglect - or to return them to those circumstances later.
Harriet Ward’s research into at-risk infants last year provided some horrifying examples of children left unprotected in dangerous and damaging environments:
- a baby whose parents so persistently forgot to feed her that she ceased to cry;
- a two-year-old left to forage in the waste bin for food;
- a three-year-old who could accurately demonstrate how heroin is prepared.
All these children remained with their birth parents for many months without being taken into care. Who knows how much damage they suffered, and how many children like them all over the country are suffering still?
This cannot be allowed to continue. The welfare of a neglected or abused child is more important than the rights of their parents, more important than the schedules of the courts, more important than ticking boxes on forms and much more important than the old saw that blood is thicker than water.
It is emphatically not the case that care is worse than a neglectful or abusive home. On the contrary, the research is undeniable: care is not perfect but, for some children, it can make life an awful lot happier. And, for some of the most vulnerable children, the sooner they are taken into care, the better.
A study by DEMOS in 2010, commissioned by Barnardo’s, showed conclusively that care improves the lives of many vulnerable children and young people. But those children whose entry to care is delayed by indecision or drift, risk longer exposure to damage and neglect; increased emotional and behavioural problems; and more placement disruption and instability.
Nor should we assume that returning a looked after child to their family is necessarily in that child’s best interests. A recent University of York study found that maltreated children who remained in care did better than those who were sent home to their families.
Research by Professor Elaine Farmer looking at children taken into care and then returned to their parents found that, two years after the children had been sent home, 59 per cent of them had been abused or neglected again.
We cannot let children down in this way.
I want social workers to feel confident that they can challenge parents in homes where there is alcohol or drug dependency, where there is no proper interaction between adults and children, where there is domestic violence, where boundaries between adult behaviour and children’s conduct are not properly policed.
And I want social workers to feel empowered to use robust measures with those parents who won’t shape up. Including, when an adult is not providing the home a child needs, making sure that child is removed to a place of greater safety.
Adoption and other permanent solutions
But where should that place be?
Well the most important thing is to find adults equipped to care, in circumstances that provide stability.
Sometimes that will mean fostering - and if there are one group of people who rival social workers in their unselfish commitment to helping our most vulnerable young people then they are foster carers…
But more and more often it should - must - mean adoption.
Because adoption provides what abused and neglected children need most - stability, certainty, security, love.
Of course I’m parti pris.
I was adopted at the age of just four months - given the stability, security and love which allowed me to enjoy limitless opportunities.
My experience of adoption has shown me how - whatever your start in life - being brought up by adults who love you, who are now your parents, is transformative.
Adoption is - in every sense of the word - for good. And the readiness of adults to make such a firm and unselfish commitment for a child they cannot know is, to my mind, an inspirational example of humanity at its best.
Adoption does not finish at the child’s 16th or 18th birthday, any more than biological parenthood does.
My adoptive parents are just as much my parents now that I’m a grown-up with my own children, as when I was a child myself.
And of all the possible permanent solutions, adoptions are the most likely to last. A study in 2010 by the University of York, called “Belonging and Permanence”, found that just 11 per cent of adoptions were disrupted after 3 or more years - compared to 28 per cent of fostering placements. When a child is adopted quickly, before their first birthday, the breakdown figure is only about 2 or 3 per cent.
Adoption gives a vulnerable child a home, and a family, for life.
Adoption rates have fallen
That is why it troubles me - more, angers me - that so few children today are benefiting from that generosity and humanity.
The decline in the number of children being adopted means a cruel rationing of human love for those most in need.
Adoptions have fallen by 17 per cent over the last decade.
The number of children adopted in England last year was the lowest since 2001. Only 3,050 children found new homes by adoption last year, just 2 per cent of them under the age of one.
These figures are even more remarkable when the number of children finding permanent routes out of care has actually increased. And we need to be careful that alternative solutions like special guardianship or residence orders are not used as a substitute for adoption when it would be the best option for a particular child.
As I pointed out earlier, the fact that more children are now being taken into care is not a problem we should lay at the door of social workers - but it is a problem if children in care are not found a proper home quickly.
I was lucky enough to be with my adoptive mother within four months of my birth. But many of those children available for adoption today have complex and challenging needs - and the average time between a child entering the care system and being adopted is now over two-and-a-half years.
What’s more, this average hides huge variations across different regions. Last year, five local authorities placed every single child within 12 months of their adoption decision.
But another four local authorities placed fewer than half its children in need of adoption over the same timescale.
We need a system that works for all children, regardless of where they live. A system which is quick, effective and robust.
Making sure the whole system works and improves for children
When a child can’t stay with their birth family, then the longer they wait for a permanent adoptive place, the more damage they will suffer - and the harder it will be to form a bond with a new family.
That is why it is so important to tackle delay throughout the system. We need to speed up care decisions, and work with local authorities to ensure they speed up their processes too.
In October last year we published new performance tables and we’re currently working hard to make this data more valuable for local authorities in identifying best practice and areas of weakness.
As we are here in the Isaac Newton Centre, I must pay tribute to the work that Andrew Christie, as Executive Director of Children’s Services for the three boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, has been doing with us to work out how local authorities can speed up decisions for the child at every stage.
As we develop our proposals further, I look forward to seeing similar leadership from every Director of Children’s Services, every Lead Member for Children, and every Family Court Judge.
Finding and assessing adoptive parents
Happily, there are now clear signs that more children are moving through local authority and court processes and being placed for adoption.
And I am sure that the reforms which will follow David Norgrove’s report into the Family Justice System will encourage that trend.
But as a consequence, we have an immediate and pressing challenge. We need radically to increase the supply of adoptive parents who are ready to give these children the love and stability they need.
I entirely reject the argument that there are too few people willing to adopt. I think there could be a vast supply: parents with their own children; couples - heterosexual and homosexual - unable to have children of their own; single individuals, both men or women.
But the barrier which looms between these prospective parents and their potential children is a process of recruitment and assessment which turns enthusiasm into exhaustion and optimism into despair.
Too many examples of the assessment process going wrong
We have been overwhelmed by stories from adopters and prospective adopters, telling us that the current system actively drives them away.
Let me mention a few examples:
- Like the woman who made her first inquiry about adoption three and a half years ago. After meeting a social worker in her home and spending four days on a preparation course, she applied to adopt. It was another seven months before the assessment process even began - a process which took 15 months to complete. She was eventually approved to adopt, but that was well over a year ago - and she is still waiting to be matched with a child.
- Or the white couple in London who knew that there were lots of black children in care and that those children have to wait 50% longer on average to be adopted. The assessment process dragged on for months, their files were lost, then they were told that the idea of their adopting a black child could not be countenanced.
- Or the couple who had already adopted a daughter from abroad, and who wanted to add another child to their family. Eighteen months after their first enquiry, they are only now attending their first preparatory meetings. In the interim, hearing nothing, they chased up repeatedly only to discover that their address had been lost, and no effort made to find it. Despite repeated enquiries, they have been told nothing about how the assessment is decided, nor what particular qualities are sought in prospective adopters. In their own words, they feel that the “assessment of prospective adopters is based on the subjective opinion of a small group of people and…success is wholly dependent upon conformity to whichever set of political or social values happen to be flavour of the month”.
- Or the couple wanting to adopt a child whom they already knew and loved, but who were turned down because one of them had not yet given up smoking for a long enough period.
- Or the remarkable adopters of five disabled children who, just a few months ago, when they were ready to adopt a sixth, were turned away by nine local authorities because their previous assessments were out of date. When they persuaded the tenth local authority to give them a fast track re-assessment, they were told that a further adoption could not take place until they bought a new electric kettle with a shorter lead.
I could go on.
But I can’t continue without asking one fundamental question.
When so many children are in such desperate need of a loving home, and are waiting for months and years to find one, how can we treat would-be adopters this way?
The flaws in the assessment system
The current system of assessment has become bloated. Assessments regularly run to over 100 pages. They include huge areas of repetition and an astonishing amount of trivial detail, which seems to bear dubious relevance to adults’ capacity to be loving parents.
Highly trained social workers spend hours asking questions like whether there is a non-slip mat in the shower, whether the prospective adopters have a trampoline in the garden and, if so, whether it has a safety net.
A three page pet assessment form has been extended by one voluntary organisation to include a six page dog assessment - nine pages of forms to manage the risk of an adopted child living with a pet.
The quantity of material gathered has been confused with the quality of analysis - and there is no direct correlation between the two.
Understandably afraid of something going wrong, successive governments have tried to eliminate risk by maximizing form-filling.
But while they were right that risk has to be managed - adoption is too profound a step for us not to take care - we cannot eradicate risk with excessive bureaucracy. We must instead take steps to manage it, proportionately and sensibly.
I would like to take this opportunity to state that if something does go wrong (which we all know is bound to happen at some point) I have no intention of condemning social workers for decisions and recommendations which were sensible and sensitive at the time.
No system can be perfect - and it would be utter nonsense to pretend otherwise.
The Action Plan on Adoption
But we can do much better. That’s why, next month, we will be bringing out an Action Plan on Adoption.
We know that more bureaucracy is not the way to secure better outcomes for vulnerable children. And we know that the current system is leaving many children waiting for years to be adopted, and many would-be adopters disheartened and discouraged.
- We need a system which helps professionals to assess prospective adopters, with better analysis and less form-filling;
- We need a procedure which can be completed at speed, and which will not drive so many would-be adopters away;
- We need to slim down pre adoption assessment, and beef up adoption support;
- And we need performance indicators which can help local authorities to measure how they’re performing against each other and improve.
As Jonathan Pearce, Chief Executive of Adoption UK, has pointed out, “it is rare to find an agency that is failing across the board”. Equally, even the best performers always have scope for improvement.
I know that demanding a process which can be completed more speedily will mean that I run the risk of being called cavalier.
But I don’t mind. What I believe would be cavalier would be to allow the continuation of an adoption process which is so slow, so inefficient, that we condemn thousands of children to a life without parents.
A group of sector experts (including the CVAA, ADCS and BAAF) is already working hard on redesigning the assessment process to achieve this radical ambition, and we look forward to working with them over the coming weeks and months.
Matching children with adoptive parents
Another area which will need particularly close scrutiny is how to meet the challenge of matching children with adoptive parents.
This can be the most vital stage of the whole process. But all too often, it fails.
Many children waiting for adoption never get adopted. Many parents cleared to adopt never get the chance. And even when a successful match is made, parents and children have still had to endure an agonizing wait because the process just takes too long.
However conscientious they may be, practitioners who wait too long for any particular child, holding out for a perfect parental match, are not acting in that child’s best interests.
And we must bear in mind that matching a child to parents cannot be simply an intellectual process. We need to be more flexible and encourage would-be adopters to be flexible. The child they might go on to love and cherish may not be the child they first imagined - and I welcome the experimental adoption parties which BAAF has recently introduced to give potential parents and children the chance to meet.
The task of finding the right adoptive family is all the more important for children with challenging needs. Most often, the children who wait the longest to be adopted are siblings (including about 75 groups of three or more), children with disabilities or children from ethnic minorities.
These children are the most difficult to place - and that’s why it’s all the more important to welcome with open arms prospective adopters who are ready and eager to give them a home.
The Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies is already developing a proposal for a Social Impact Bond focused on finding adopters and providing adoption support for hard to place children.
Innovative initiatives like this could achieve real improvements for the most vulnerable children, and we look forward to seeing how these plans develop.
One particularly sensitive element of the matching process is, as you all know, matching by ethnicity. Which is much more complex than simply race.
I won’t deny that an ethnic match between adopters and child can be a bonus. But it is outrageous to deny a child the chance of adoption because of a misguided belief that race is more important than any other factor. And it is simply disgraceful that a black child is three times less likely to be adopted from care than a white child.
I heard, recently, of a foster carer whose local authority refused to let her adopt her foster child. The child was happy, and contented - she loved him, and he loved her. But she was white, and he was black. And the local authority insisted that he would have to be moved to black adoptive parents.
Eventually, when no black adopters could be found, common sense prevailed and the adoption went ahead. But only after the mother had endured a nightmare lasting two and half years - during which, as she said, “each morning I thought my son would be removed because another family had been found”.
This mother is by no means the only adopter told that she cannot adopt a child with a different skin colour to her own.
And although the new guidance I issued to local authorities last year explicitly addressed this issue, evidence suggests that too many have failed to change their practice.
If there is a loving family, ready and able to adopt a child, issues of ethnicity must not stand in the way.
I won’t say too much now, in advance of the action plan - but I can promise you that I will not look away when the futures of black children in care continue to be damaged.
Adoption transforms the lives of some of the most neglected children in our country. It is a generous act - and it can achieve incredible results.
I know this from the advice of experts, the statements of parents, the stories of children and from my own experience.
That’s why we are determined that adoption should happen more often and should happen more speedily.
By changing our attitude towards adoption, reducing the unnecessary bureaucracy of the assessment process and freeing up professionals to rely on their own judgement, I feel confident that we will be able to create a more efficient and effective adoption system.
I know that some supporters of adoption will have heard this before, and will be sceptical.
But I can assure you that I will not settle for a modest, temporary uplift in adoption numbers, nor a short-lived acceleration in the process. Nothing less than a significant and sustained improvement will do.
The most neglected, the most abused, the most damaged children in our care deserve nothing less.